May 25, 2006 – With hundreds of computerized sensors and components, todayâ€™s average car has more computing power than the Apollo 11 lunar module that took Neil Armstrong to the moon. But as technology advances, those without specialized knowledge and tools are finding automobiles harder to repair.
The result, according to consumer advocates, is that motor vehicle owners must increasingly rely on expensive dealerships to unlock manufacturer security codes and to identify and repair problems.
A bill currently under consideration in Congress would establish consumersâ€™ prerogative to choose who repairs their vehicles by requiring auto manufacturers to release all of the information needed to diagnose and fix problems.
The Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act would require automakers to provide the same information to the public that they grant to authorized dealers. Exceptions made to protect a companyâ€™s "intellectual property" related to the design and manufacture of auto parts. The Act would also enjoin the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to establish regulations to govern manufacturersâ€™ to provision of the required information.
David Parde, president of the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality, a group representing "aftermarket" companies like Midas and Jiffy Lube, and one of the principle backers of the bill, said people should not be beholden to manufacturers to get their cars serviced.
Motor vehicle owners must increasingly rely on expensive dealerships to unlock manufacturer security codes and to identify and repair problems.
"The automotive aftermarket has been around since the car, basically, and people have had the right to have their car repaired where they choose to have it repaired, to go to buy parts wherever they choose to buy parts, to be able to work on the car themselves," Parde told The NewStandard.
Information needed to fix transmissions, anti-lock brakes, electronic and mechanical systems, steering, airbags and other components are frequently "locked" behind access codes in newer cars. Mechanics now need electronic scanners to communicate with vehiclesâ€™ on-board diagnostic (OBD) computer systems to identify the problems and access various codes that cause the "check engine" light to come on.
Parde says legislation is necessary because each generation of vehicles that rolls off the lot is more complex than the last.
"Itâ€™s a problem that we think is going to continue to get worse and worse as these cars continue to be more heavily computerized," he said.
But the bill has met stiff opposition from auto manufacturers and some lawmakers who say legislation is unnecessary because companies entered into a voluntary agreement to release information several years ago. The FTC also opposes the bill, with Chair Deborah Platt Majoras stating during a Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing last week that a "voluntary, self-regulatory approach is the best solution."
But consumer advocates contend that self-regulation, which only resulted in response to their push for legislation, is not working. In testimony to the Energy and Commerce committee, property-rights attorney Nancie Marzulla pointed out that the manufacturer already locks out independent repair shops and aftermarket-parts producers during a vehicleâ€™s warranty period.
The FTC also opposes the bill, with Chair Deborah Platt Majoras stating during a Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing last week that a "voluntary, self-regulatory approach is the best solution."
â€œThere is simply no economic incentive to allow independent repair shops to compete with [dealerships] for the same work, or to allow after-market parts to compete with the auto manufacturersâ€™ â€˜genuine factory partsâ€™ sold at premium prices,â€� Marzulla said. â€œThe legitimate role of government is to intervene in the case of such market failures.â€�
At last weekâ€™s Congressional hearing on the bill, Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) said she was convinced to sign on as a co-sponsor after speaking with employees of PT Packard, a company that performs maintenance and repairs on power-supply equipment. Baldwin said the employees recounted being increasingly stymied by manufacturersâ€™ encrypted software. She sees this as a trend that could inhibit competition in the auto-repair industry.
"Independent auto and repair shops should not have to fear losing business because of hurdles that block access to vital information," Baldwin said.
Automakers, however, deny that computer codes are a tool to block competition. Charles Territo, director of communications for the industry group Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers repeated the common refrain that the bill is "a solution looking for a problem."
"Under an agreement we made in 2002, manufacturers agreed that by August of 2003 all of the service and training information made available to franchise dealers would be made available via websites to independent repairers or for that matter anyone else who seeks access to that information," Territo told TNS.
"The days of somebody tinkering in their driveway and fixing their car themselves is pretty much over," Zonenshine said.
But independent garage owners say the websites, most of which charge a fee for access, are of limited use because mechanics must also have the scanners to read the on-board diagnostic systems. Ron Turner, owner of Ridge Auto in Ambler, Pennsylvania, said twelve years ago he could get by with one scanner but now he needs several in order to diagnose different makes and models of cars. Non-generic or vehicle-specific scanners can cost thousands of dollars, said Turner, and even then some of the information remains inaccessible.
"The situation is there are many independent shops that go to much more effort to find the information," Ridge told TNS, "and there are some independents that know just to send the whole car to the dealer. They know itâ€™s too difficult for them, [and] they donâ€™t have the necessary equipment and tools to do it."
Larry Zonenshine, owner of Mansfield Auto Care in Mansfield, Massachusetts, said computerized systems have made cars easier to diagnose and fix -- if you have the right tools. "There are some systems, depending on the engineers and how they approached it, that can make it quite difficult [to diagnose], and there are some systems that we still canâ€™t access without carrying very expensive and specialized equipment that as an independent I canâ€™t afford to own," Zonenshine said.
The barriers encountered by independent mechanics when working with manufacturersâ€™ computerized systems are even more impenetrable for the do-it-yourselfer who, with owner-oriented manuals like those put out by the Chilton Publishing Company, could often identify and fix problems without having to spend hundreds of dollars at the repair shop.
"The days of somebody tinkering in their driveway and fixing their car themselves is pretty much over," Zonenshine said. "Sure, you can change your own oil or [put on a new set of brakes,] but when the light comes on â€“ â€˜service engine soonâ€™ â€“ youâ€™re going to be at a great disadvantage if you donâ€™t have all the proper equipment."
Stani Bohac, research scientist at the University of Michiganâ€™s Mechanical Engineering Department, also laments the loss of simpler vehicles, which he said could still be produced if manufacturers desired.
"Cars, like most other things today, are designed to be efficiently assembled so that theyâ€™re inexpensive based on all the features that they have," Bohac told TNS. "But theyâ€™re not designed very well for serviceability, especially for people that try to fix them in their own garages."
Bohac said computers have made cars safer, less polluting, more reliable and more comfortable, but at the same time also "more disposable."
"But itâ€™s true for everything, the way people build houses today â€“ theyâ€™re more disposable, theyâ€™re big and have all these features, but really the quality isnâ€™t what it used to be," Bohac said. "And cars are the same way."
Originally proposed in 2001, the latest Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act was introduced by Congress member Joe Barton (R-Texas) in May 2005. It currently has 102 co-sponsors and is slated for markup today.