Mass. considers landmark legislation to give local auto-repair shops same info dealers have

By Lyle Moran, AP
Sunday, July 18, 2010

Mass. considers landmark auto-repair legislation

BOSTON — When Mary Burke recently took her 2007 Honda Element with its worn-out ignition switch to her regular repair shop, the mechanic didn’t have the software to fix the problem.

The shop’s owner, Glenn Wilder, said he had to take Burke’s car to a Honda dealership — because those are the only places Honda releases the computer software he needed. Burke said she paid much more for the repair than she would have at Wilder’s shop and was without her car for a day.

“I was totally frustrated and upset with the whole situation and the way Honda had a stranglehold on how Glenn had to do it,” said Burke, who lives in Marshfield, 30 miles southeast of Boston.

Now mom-and-pop repair shops like Wilder Brothers American Car Care Center in Scituate are pushing a bill that would require auto manufacturers to provide, at a price, all the diagnostic and software information they make available to their dealerships.

Massachusetts would become the first state to approve the so-called auto right-to-repair law. The Senate recently passed it, and it’s pending in the House. Industry observers say passage of the bill in Massachusetts could drive similar legislative efforts in other states.

Car dealers and manufacturers, including Honda, have vigorously opposed the right-to-repair bill on the federal level and in other states, such as New Jersey and Arizona. They say the push for the bill isn’t about consumers but about auto parts.

A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an association of 11 vehicle manufacturers including Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., said aftermarket parts companies are seeking information that would enable them to make inexpensive parts in foreign countries without incurring research and development costs.

“This is a thinly veiled attempt by parts manufacturers to lower the cost of remanufacturing original equipment of manufacturer parts,” alliance spokesman Charles Territo said. “Once this information is released, that intellectual property will be in China by the end of the month.”

But supporters of the bill say it’s about giving consumers choices.

“Consumers pay a lot of money for cars, and they should be able to choose where they can get them repaired,” said Art Kinsman, spokesman for the Right to Repair Coalition, which represents more than 1,000 Massachusetts mechanics supporting the legislation.

Midsize and large repair shops also have said they would benefit from a right-to-repair law.

Every day, mechanics at Direct Tire and Auto Service’s four locations get a handful of cars they can’t fix, so customers are sent to dealers, CEO Barry Steinberg said.

“If I had the same equipment, it would mean more business for me and help me serve more customers’ needs,” he said.

But not all repair shops agree the state needs to change the current system.

Rusty Savignac, co-owner of Paxton Garage in Paxton, said he uses subscriptions to websites that provide answers to any repair questions he has.

Independent repair shops can access repair information from services such as ALLDATA, a leading software provider, and the National Automotive Service Task Force, which says it was established to increase the availability and accessibility of auto service information, training, diagnostic tools and equipment for auto service professionals. Savignac said he’s concerned that the system in place now will be damaged by new legislation.

“We have something that works,” Savignac said. “We don’t need something that may not.”

The state Senate’s bill doesn’t require manufacturers to make repair information available to aftermarket parts companies. The bill also says trade secrets don’t have to be revealed.

Kinsman, of the repair coalition, dismissed criticism that repair shops are seeking any proprietary information.

“We do not want the blueprints,” he said. “We just want to be able to repair cars.”

Federal right-to-repair bills have been offered in every legislative session since 2001 without success. Bills like the one in Massachusetts also have been considered in Oklahoma, Maine and Nevada.

Kinsman said the strong push back from national manufacturers is because they fear passage of a right-to-repair bill in Massachusetts will lead to similar legislative successes nationwide.

Territo, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spokesman, didn’t dispute Kinsman’s argument.

“Passage in Massachusetts,” he said, “is just as bad as passage in Congress.”

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