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Can ‘Right To Repair’ Stay Fixed?

Don’t you hate it when you have to keep bringing your car back to the shop because the problem you thought was fixed didn’t stay fixed?

Most of us do. That’s why we want the shop to fix it right the first time. But in order to do that, the shop must have the information and tools required for the job.

The Right to Repair law reminds me of those aggravating multiple-trip repairs. Supposedly, the problem of providing independent shops with necessary information was solved more than a decade ago. In 2002, automakers agreed to start sharing at least some of the information necessary to access new diagnostic systems in vehicles, allowing independent repair shops a chance to compete on reasonably fair terms with dealerships for car repair business.

Except that the problem wasn’t really solved in 2002, in light of reports that not all manufacturers were genuinely forthcoming with that information. Fed up, voters in Massachusetts passed a ballot initiative in 2012 designed to more strictly require automotive companies to offer diagnostic information to those willing to pay for it. In a failed attempt to head off that initiative, the Massachusetts Legislature approved a compromise bill the same year, leaving the Bay State with not one, but two right to repair statutes on the books. (The Legislature quickly passed yet another bill to reconcile the laws.)

Now here we go again. Last month four associations - two that represent automakers and two that represent independent automotive repair shops - signed an agreement promising that automakers would share nearly all information they provide to their dealerships with independent repair shops too. The voluntary agreement is supposed to give non-dealership repair shops the information they need to provide repairs, with such data to be provided on “fair and reasonable terms.” Oh, but proprietary data isn’t included. Neither is any data pertaining to security systems.

Carmakers and dealers are quick to claim that with all the data available in a car’s computers, thieves can defeat antitheft systems, entering and driving your car with a few mouse clicks and button presses. True enough. But thieves can already do that now. David Beckham’s car was stolen in Madrid using such remote entry methods; it reportedly turned up in Macedonia. A Johns Hopkins computer professor was able to simulate such theft using trial and error. It is hard to see what, precisely, automakers would have us believe they are preventing.

Nobody is asking carmakers for their source code. Consumers are just demanding all the data they need to maintain the property they bought in a condition suitable for its intended use. That is their right. In the end, the security claims hold no more water than the complaints that releasing proprietary data would allow automakers’ competitors to reverse-engineer their parts. This claim surfaced when Massachusetts’ law was under debate, and made no more sense at the time than it does now. In the end, automakers are reluctant to release too much of the information used to read a vehicle’s diagnostics because doing so will curb the ability of dealerships to charge higher prices while guaranteeing that they can fix drivers’ problems the first time - a claim independent repair shops have not always been able to match.

As I have observed in this space before, once a consumer buys a product, whether a smartphone or a car, that product should belong to its owner. Just because advancing technology gives manufacturers a greater ability to restrict consumer access, it doesn’t give them a right to such restrictions. Even if the days when a sufficiently motivated teenager could tinker under the hood and get results are gone, car owners have paid for their cars, and that entitles them to choose who to hire for repairs.

So is the problem all fixed? I hope so. But if the latest agreement doesn’t do the trick, it will be back to the shop floor, in Congress and in legislatures around the country.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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