Auto Service World
Feature   November 1, 2005   by Andrew Ross

Right to Fight

I’d really like to believe that the OEMs and their service channels want to have the ownership experience of their customers to be the best it can be, but at times like nowadays, this is hard to believe.

The recent stalemate at the voluntary talks on access to repair information and tools in the U.S. is an unfortunate example of what can make the guys who make cars so hard to take sometimes. While there are surely some examples of voluntary change–though none come to mind right now–it has been my experience that the automakers as a whole usually need to be dragged kicking and screaming through any change.

It’s not a new situation. I remember back in the early 1990s when the European market was working on mandating unleaded fuels.

While I did not hear this directly from an OEM (the language barrier prevented it), the man-on-the-street talk was of the OEMs saying that the technology for unleaded fuels wasn’t reliable, it would cause engines to wear out faster, and the technology in the cars couldn’t possibly be instituted until the fuel was available. Oh, and the cost to consumers would skyrocket. Roadblocks all. This argument was joined by the petroleum industry with gusto, all conveniently ignoring the fact that these same arguments were trotted out a decade and a half earlier in the unsuccessful battle to prevent unleaded fuel’s arrival in North America.

Fear and cost to consumers has been used to battle everything from safety legislation to environmental standards.

Without question, you can expect that automakers will trot out the fear card in the Right to Repair battle. I expect that they’ll tell anyone who will listen about how moves to open up repair information could destroy intellectual property rights, forcing them to curtail R&D, and maybe even close a few facilities as a result.

A few will probably insult this industry by suggesting that the average independent tech can’t be trusted under the hood of today’s sophisticated cars. They will conveniently leave out the fact that many techs migrate back and forth between the independents and car dealer facilities as job opportunities and work conditions dictate.

In the U.S., the only reason the automakers participated in the voluntary opening-up of repair information in the first place, through the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) and its website, was that they had the heck scared out of them by an Arizona legislative initiative that came a hair’s breadth from passing.

Without the threat of a government mandate, they would have done nothing, and in the face of a certain battle to enact legislation in the U.S., they have predictably turned their energies away from forging an acceptable, long-term voluntary agreement and toward fighting the Right to Repair bill.

It leaves us in a very difficult position in Canada. Many in this industry had been hoping for a resolution on the voluntary agreement, so that we could take the same position here, and have the whole thing come to an agreement more quickly than legislative processes would dictate.

That hope seems to have gone with the wind now. I’d love to be wrong on this, but it is likely that we may have a long legislative road ahead of us. Jobbers and their independent garage customers need to ensure that they make their voices heard in their home towns and in Ottawa. Call your MP. Tell your friends. I’ll bet neither knows about the situation. The message has to be that access to information is good for the consumer, and that it is a lack of tools and information that keep the independent sector from being efficient and effective, not skill level or smarts.

To my mind, restricting access to necessary information and tools costs consumers money, harms the environment, and enshrines a monopoly on repairs that is out of place in a free-enterprise economy.

This situation cannot be allowed to stand indefinitely and must be ended by whatever means will get results.

If a voluntary agreement can be worked out in Canada, that would be best; but if legislation is necessary, then so be it.

–Andrew Ross, Publisher and Editor

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