There is a story in today's Boston Globe about the Massachusetts State Senate passing a bill allowing a resident to take their car to either an independent repair shop or to a dealer to be fixed. The Senate's Bill 2268 now goes to the Massachusetts House for consideration.
Huh, can't Massachusetts residents do this now, you may ask?
Yes, but currently, independent car repair shops in Massachusetts and across the US do not have unfettered access to all the diagnostic and repair information and tools that are available to a car manufacturer's dealerships.
The proposed Massachusetts law would require automotive manufacturers provide to independent repair shops the same information for the diagnosis, service, or repair of any motor vehicle that it makes and provides to its authorized dealers and motor vehicle repair facilities. The information made available by the manufacturers to independent repair shops would have to include the same tools and software capabilities, including wireless capabilities, diagnostic codes, manuals, etc., related to the diagnosis, service, and repair of a motor vehicles.
The wireless capability requirement is interesting since more and more cars will be able to send their current operational status information directly to dealerships.
In addition, the manufacturers would have to provide the information at the same terms and conditions they offer it to their dealerships and authorized repair facilities.
Finally, the manufacturers would have to offer the same information to the aftermarket tool vendors.
Naturally, the major car manufacturers and their dealers as well as the New England Service Station and Automotive Repair Association (NESSARA) are vigorously opposed to this bill, claiming that there is no need for it and that it will cost them needed revenue. For instance, they cite a 2006 Consumers Report study that stated that "a minuscule 0.2 percent of auto-repair customers" get turned away by independent car repair shops because they can't fix their customers' cars due to not being privy to a manufacturer's diagnostic information.
Furthermore, car manufacturers and dealers point to the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) which was set up in 2000 that independent repair shops and aftermarket tool vendors can use to facilitate their access to repair-related information and tools.
According to this story in MotorAge, Matthew LeLacheur, executive director, NESSARA, is quoted as saying that:
“Since December 2004, in the entire United States there have been a total of 291 information requests filed on the NASTF Web site www.nastf.org... Of the requests filed, manufacturers' responses resulted in 227 solutions, 58 were determined to be invalid, meaning the complaint did not relate to missing information and the remaining six are currently being reviewed. Massachusetts auto repair businesses have filed, in all, a total of 16 such requests since 2005, only nine of which have been filed since January 2009. If the Massachusetts repair industry is only filling approximately three requests per year, how big can this supposed information and tooling problem be?”
I should note that the 2006 Consumers Report study mentioned above was made in regard to a national "Right to Repair" bill, which has been proposed in the US Congress several times since 2001, without much luck. The last time was in 2009 (see H.R. 2057: Motor Vehicle Owners Right to Repair Act of 2009) at which time Consumers Reports generally supported the idea but with caveats such as ensuring that diagnostic and repair information isn't misused by third parties to get around auto pollution control or security devices.
If the Massachusetts House passes the bill and it is signed into law, it will be the first car "Right to Repair" law to pass in the US.
Given the increasing complexity of automobile systems, especially in terms of software application, should there be a national "Right to Repair" law? And are there any downsides or unintended consequences to such a law?
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.