An Unfair Dealer Monopoly On Repairs

July 08, 2009|By Dan Rodricks

Typical American consumers - and that's most of us - probably make these assumptions about new cars: They're all "computerized," meaning beyond the realm of repair by those of us who once had an interest or instinct for working on them, and we're all stuck with costly service at the dealerships from which we purchased them. We might have a beloved mechanic at a local garage who can do the work for less, but we probably won't go to him for repairs until the car is out of warranty. Even then, our beloved mechanic might not be able to perform the job because he doesn't have the top-secret codes that allow him to communicate with the car's computer system and shut off that annoying "check engine" light.

Understood and accepted. The whole thing might smell of scam, but that's how things have been for years, and particularly in the age of the computer chip.

Even now, with the U.S. auto industry in a tailspin and Congress willing to subsidize the purchase of new cars ("cash for clunkers"), consumer choices remain limited - at least for five years or the first 60,000 miles. Dealerships make more profit from their service departments than they do from new-car sales, and the system seems rigged to stay that way.

But buyer, be aware: There has been a quiet "right-to-repair" movement in this country for years, and those behind it - elements of the auto repair and after-market parts industries, consumer groups and the AAA - are making another push for legislative action as dealerships close and the recession takes a toll on consumers' ability to pay for service.

The right-to-repair lobby wants a kind of automotive Freedom of Information Act. There's a bill in Congress to require automakers to provide the same high-tech service information to independent repair shops that they provide to the service departments of dealerships. They want diagnostic and repair codes, updated and easily accessible, and the cool tools the mechanics at dealerships have.

"The independent repair shops are more than happy to pay a reasonable fee for that information so they can make the full repairs," says Sandy Bass-Cors, executive director of the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality, representing what it calls the "$200 billion-a-year, five million people-strong Automotive Aftermarket." Some of CARE's major members are Pep Boys, AutoZone, NAPA, Midas and Jiffy Lube. The group claims 20,058 auto shops and 14,762 parts retailers, as well as that special group of Americans - the motorheads among us - who still want to work on their own vehicles.

"This [right-to-repair] bill is about consumer choice," Ms. Bass-Cors says. "Let's say you buy a new Ford Taurus, but it breaks down. If you're close to a dealer, then fine. But let's say you're traveling and you break down and you're not near a dealer. You hopefully get towed to an independent repair shop. That shop should be able to access the information it needs from Ford to make the repair."

She says some of this information, particularly about vehicle emissions systems, has "trickled out" of the auto industry, and some repair shops have been able buy computer codes. Still, CARE believes a federal law is needed to open the market for more consumer choice.

Steve Merrill, owner of Woodbrook Exxon on North Charles Street in Baltimore County, says automakers' stinginess with technical information creates frequent inconveniences for mechanics. Without a "series of computer codes," he says, they can diagnose but not fix a problem, leaving that "check engine" light on and casting doubt among customers about the service station's competency.

Just recently, lack of a code baffled his technicians and added time to the repair of power windows on an import. "It's a major problem," Mr. Merrill says. "It can make [customers] feel that the local shops can't keep up with technology. ... I have a state-of-the-art facility here, with all the tools and manpower a dealership has, but [not] a code that we need."

Ms. Bass-Cors is careful to use the word "nonproprietary" when describing the information her group thinks should be available. "The aftermarket industry has been re-engineering replacement parts for years," she says, dismissing the claim that right-to-repair is really about parts manufacturers obtaining trade secrets from automakers. "What we need is the nonproprietary information so when we fit a part - the brakes, the ignition, the electronics, the tires - your car knows this part has been repaired and your 'check engine' light goes off."

To that end, and to get the best deal for American consumers in the restructuring of the nation's automotive market, Congress and President Barack Obama ought to support "right-to-repair."

It's either that or we keep doing what the Car Talk guys on National Public Radio suggest: Stick a piece of black tape over the "check engine" light.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM.

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