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Service or Secrets?

Do you remember Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX)? Of course not. But he was the one who introduced the Right to Repair Act (H.R. 2735) on the floor of Congress back in 2001.

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Do you remember Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX)? Of course not. But he was the one who introduced the Right to Repair Act (H.R. 2735) on the floor of Congress back in 2001.

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The nation’s auto industry and repairers of vehicles have been squirming about repair information availability and intellectual property sharing ever since.

Without getting into a detailed history, which goes back many years, suffice it to say that frustrated independent service shops and tire dealers made enough noise about the unavailability of proper service information and diagnostic codes that Barton got involved.

There were some initial efforts between 1999 and 2002 that didn’t go well. But Right to Repair started gaining traction in 2003, after Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY) jumped in as a bill co-sponsor.

Yet all of this activity led not to the passage of a law, but to a voluntary agreement, which took effect on Aug. 31, 2003, between automakers and industry group ASA, which has some 12,000 members. Their plan: New vehicle makers would share repair details and codes with everyone in the automotive repair business. For a price.

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The agreement states: “All information necessary to diagnose, repair and service vehicles for emissions and non-emission related repairs will be made available by automobile manufacturers to independent repair shops. This is to take place the same way automakers communicate information to their franchised dealerships.”

The agreement created the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF), an online system by which service shops and dealers could buy the vehicle service information they needed, with daily, weekly, monthly or annual subscription options.

Did it work? You be the judge. According to reports, some independent repair shops, including tire dealers, experienced very good success getting the information they require. Others did not, or became increasingly frustrated having to dole out thousands of dollars for access to repair information and diagnostic codes.

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After all, purchasers of new vehicles are buying more than a new-car smell. They’re getting on-board computers and lots of what vehicle makers call “intellectual property.” In other words: highly secret repair information codes. Do these secrets belong to vehicle owners, vehicle makers or repair shops? That’s the hang up.

Through it all, Barton has remained steadfast. “I have been involved with this issue based solely on the principle that I believe consumers need to have a choice in auto repair. They should be able to choose where they have the vehicle repaired and whether they want aftermarket replacement parts or original equipment parts.”

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Barton’s quest has gained support in the Senate, where Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced a companion bill (S-2183) in March 2004. Both will likely be on the agenda this year.

Right to Repair will become increasingly important to tire dealers as OEM-installed tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) become more prevalent in the next few years. As there is no industry TPMS standard, every automaker will have its own unique system.

What will ultimately hammer this bill into law is the continued claim by tire dealers and service shops that the voluntary information sharing agreement isn’t working.

Evidence that it isn’t turns up in a Tarrance Group 2004 study, commissioned by the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA).

According to the study, 59% of shops have had problems gaining access to repair information or the tools necessary for repairs, and 67% said they had to send at least one customer to a car dealer for repairs because of that difficulty. And, some 25% of this group claimed they had these types of problems “extremely” or “very” frequently.

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By making the Right to Repair bill law, automakers would be required to disclose to car buyers, repair shops and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) all information needed to repair the vehicles, including computer diagnostic codes. They would not, however, have to divulge information if the FTC determines that it is proprietary or would reveal trade secrets.

That’s what at stake and the stakes are high. Kathleen Schmatz, AAIA president and CEO, says, “Independents do not have the luxury of depending on the promises of OEMs. Our service industry needs affordable, effective access to tools and information. The only way to make sure this happens is by passing effective right-to-repair legislation.”

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