Auto Service World
Feature   April 1, 2005   by Dennis Mellersh

Whose Rights are They Anyway?

OBD II Emissions Control Technology and The Right To Repair

It is perhaps a mark of the modern age that software is at the centre of a tug of war.

With the introduction of on-board-diagnostic programs (OBD) in the late 1980s, and subsequently OBD II beginning in 1996, aftermarket emissions-related automotive service and repair entered a new era of increasingly complex diagnostic and repair technology.

At its most basic level OBD II, for example, involves hundreds and hundreds of diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs), involving not only engine management but also diagnostic information involving other aspects of vehicle operation –virtually the diagnostic control network of the vehicle.

Nevertheless, until relatively recently a typical article in Jobber News on the subject of emerging issues in emissions control technology with OBD and OBD II would have been relatively straightforward. The article would outline new technologies and developing trends–information that jobbers and service providers could use in their businesses.

But today, that paradigm no longer applies.

The inherent complexity of OBD- and OBD II-equipped vehicles make aftermarket diagnosis and repair more demanding and knowledge-intensive on the part of the jobber and repair service provider.

Added to these challenges is a rapidly emerging problem for the aftermarket: denial of the right to access the required diagnostic information through OBD and OBD II systems to Canadian technicians and independent service providers. In addition, specific tools and equipment are often required to perform certain diagnostics and repairs: denial of access to such tools and equipment is also becoming an issue.

The original idea of OBD and OBD II, which were mandated for all vehicles by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), was twofold: to reduce vehicle emissions through OBD and OBD II engine management systems and diagnostic technology, and to make the information required for the diagnosis and repair or maintenance of vehicles easier to obtain, more accurate and more efficient for all repair service providers.

Those purposes are now being at least partially negated in Canada by apparent OEM denial of Canadian aftermarket access to information, repair tools and equipment. This is currently taking the form of OEM website inaccessibility and denial of access to other forms of OEM information as well as service and repair tools.

This issue affects repair and service on a vast number of vehicles. The majority of vehicles on the road in Canada are now equipped with OBD II technology, for example.

The Automotive Industries Association of Canada (AIA) has summed up the situation concisely: “Increasing reliance on computer-control systems and on-board diagnostics in the manufacture of new vehicles is creating an information void in the repair and service industry. It is becoming more commonplace for independent automotive repair shops to be shut out of the information loop, particularly for diagnostic repair codes and flash reprogramming codes.”

Canadian automotive technician and technical trainer Glen McNally says, “Canadian aftermarket access to diagnostic tools is restricted.” And in earlier comments, McNally observed that automotive technicians employed by manufacturer franchises have had access, through their employer, to needed emission-related service and repair information. “The same is not always true for other individuals who repair and service vehicles.

“Some manufacturers do not make available to the public all of the information needed to adequately service and repair motor vehicles. Further, when information is made available, it may be difficult to locate and time-consuming to obtain,” he says. “These [U.S. EPA-mandated access to diagnostic and repair information] regulations are intended to preserve freedom of choice by consumers in where they obtain service and repair of emission-related problems. This can only be achieved by ensuring that all sectors of the automotive service industry have access to the information needed to perform such services and repairs,” McNally stated.

He compares the information access issue to social activity in Canadian rural areas, where friends who visit each other’s houses knock and come in through the “friendly” kitchen door to the house. Strangers knock and enter through the more formal front door. McNally says that with OBD II and other repair, service and diagnostic information, automotive dealerships access through the friendly kitchen door. Others, such as service providers in the aftermarket, have to try to gain access through the formal front door.

The overall issue can be summarized simply:

–OEM information is needed to diagnose and repair OBD-equipped vehicles;

–OEM information is available to all service providers in the U.S. through dedicated OEM websites and other means;

–This essential OEM information is being denied to the Canadian aftermarket by a number of vehicle manufacturers.

However, the solution to the issue is much more complex.

In an extensive interview with Jobber News, AIA president Ray Datt outlined AIA’s perception of the access to diagnostic service and repair information and tools problem, and discussed how AIA is working towards a solution. Research with AIA also included information supplied by Scott Smith, AIA’s manager of government relations.

“This is a huge issue,” Datt says. “Although the access problem is not at critical mass at this point, it will become very critical if we let it. Ultimately, if uncorrected, this situation could shut down the Canadian aftermarket. In other words, the problem will grow unless a solution is found. If you look at 1996 as the watershed year, with all 1996 and subsequently produced vehicles being equipped with OBD II, of the 18.4 million vehicles on the road in Canada today, 10.8 million of them, or about 59%, are OBD II,” Datt says.

Emphasizing the seriousness of this issue, at the January 2005 Automotive Service Providers Summit which AIA organized, the association noted, “The access to information issue is a fundamental threat to the survival of the automotive aftermarket industry as a whole, and without solving that problem, positive messages about the environment are moot. There is now growing evidence that Canadian OEMs are withholding information.”

As part of AIA’s work to resolve this issue, Robert J. Blair, who was president of Carquest Canada Ltd. before taking a new position with General Parts in Raleigh, N.C. recently, and chair of the AIA government relations committee, recently wrote to Alain Batty, president of the Ford Motor Company of Canada. He received the following answer from Ford’s technical service programs manager, apparently acknowledging the lack of access:

“The diagnostic and repair data mentioned in your letter related to the aftermarket in the United States. This information is no longer available through the Ford website due to cost and efficiency reasons associated with providing this product in Canada.”

The Ford letter went on to suggest, “Nonetheless, the relevant information is available in workshop manuals, wiring diagrams and related items and can be purchased by independent repair outlets through our national dealer network. Please contact a Ford of Canada dealer for details regarding purchasing this information.”

Further efforts to obtain clarification from OEMs are being made by Bill Haas, vice-president, service repair markets, with the US-based Automotive Service Association (ASA), which is working with AIA on solving the overall access to information problem.

As vice-president of ASA, Haas has written to the vehicle manufacturers, noting in his letter, “You can imagine my disappointment to learn that automotive service professionals in Canada are being denied access to several of the automotive service information websites. I was also discouraged to learn that some automobile manufacturers are prohibiting the sale of diagnostic tools and equipment to repair shops in Canada. If your company has a policy that creates any limitations, restrictions or prohibitions on the access of service information on the sale of diagnostic tools and equipment outside of the U.S., please notify me of them in writing.”

AIA is working closely with all Canadian automotive aftermarket service provider representatives and groups on this issue.

Ray Datt says the industry needs to present governments with a proposed solution, not just a review of the problem.

For AIA, one of the important steps in finding a solution is determining the exact nature and specifics of the problem from the perspective of individual independent repair service providers. “We have developed a questionnaire asking for examples of denial of access to information, tools, equipment, and training and have so far sent it out to 20,000 operations, and we need to get even more of these distributed. The purpose is to quantify the extent and particulars of the problem,” says Datt.

Essentially, Datt says this is a challenge which can be met successfully. Not willing to categorize the issue as an OEM conspiracy, Datt says, “We can cope with this problem and we are moving towards a solution. The exact nature of the solution is what we are working on. We need two approaches. The first is a short-term solution, which involves working on a practical level with the EPA-mandated access to information mechanisms now in place, and we also need a long-term solution, which could mean a legislated outcome in some form of right to repair legislation in Canada. This avenue will take a lot of time and effort.”

Datt stresses that AIA is considering a “legislative” solution as opposed to a “legal” situation, indicating that success will be better assured by legislation involving right to repair information and tools so that consumers will have a choice on where they have their cars repaired, rather than a litigious solution involving actions against individual OEMs. Proactive efforts directed at the Canadian government include a planned industry issues information initiative in Ottawa in October.

AIA is also making efforts to increase consumer awareness of repair and maintenance issues in a campaign called Be Car Care Aware. The campaign stresses the key messages of safety and dependability, the environment, and enhancing vehicle value and pride of ownership.

In government relations, one of AIA’s central messages to the Canadian government is that consumers need to have choices as to where they can go for their vehicle repairs. With the current restrictions on repair and diagnostic information and diagnostic and repair tools and equipment, consumer choice is reduced. “In the final analysis, this issue is all about consumer choice and consumer convenience,” Datt says.

Looking to the future, it is clear that the introduction of OBD technology raised not only the diagnostic and repair complexity and competence level required by the total automotive service provider industry, but also impacted the aftermarket industry’s ability to perform the appropriate service and repairs correctly.

Successfully resolving the information and tools access issue for the Canadian aftermarket has the potential, Datt says, of “raising the bar for the entire Canadian service repair industry, which can ultimately result in an overall better aftermarket sector in Canada.”

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