Independent garages try to jump start auto repair bill

A dispute between automakers and unaffiliated repair shops is driving legislation to require wider dissemination of computer codes and other tools to repair a car or truck.

A dispute between automakers and unaffiliated repair shops is driving legislation to require wider dissemination of computer codes and other tools to repair a car or truck.

But the bill’s prospects could be complicated by a budding disagreement between Democrats and Republicans over whether the measure does more harm than good.

Six Democrats who had been co-sponsors of the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act, which was written by Energy and Commerce Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas), have withdrawn their support.

The House bill would require car and truck makers to disclose to the vehicle owner or a repair shop of his or her choice information “necessary to diagnose, service or repair the vehicle.” Car companies would not be compelled to release trade secrets under the terms of the bill.

Though other Democrats remain with Barton, the reversals are another obstacle in the long-standing lobbying effort by the $200 billion aftermarket repair and supply industry.

In a “Dear Colleague” letter circulating among House offices, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said she wasn’t convinced the problem Barton’s bill sought to address was real, even though she was once a co-sponsor another version, and that the “manager’s mark” would limit the ability of consumers and repair shops to sue if denied access to diagnostic information.

“I do not believe we should legislate because of a few anecdotes, and I cannot support nor lend my name to a bill that undermines consumers’ rights,” Schakowsky said.

Despite the opposition from Democrats, the bill, H.R. 2048, passed the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee on a party-line, 14-13 vote last month. The full committee may take up the measure next month, lobbyists said.

There is no Senate sponsor, but Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is considering introducing a companion measure after the House markup.

For years, independent auto-repair shops and suppliers, some of which, like AutoZone and Midas, are quite large, have sniped at automakers about access to diagnostic tools and other repair information critical to do their jobs. They accuse manufacturers of withholding the information in an effort to steer business to auto dealerships associated with manufacturers.

With each technological improvement to automobiles, repair shops become more reliant on car makers to provide them access to data to make needed repairs. But some car makers “have either made access difficult, or have totally prevented access to the information needed to provide repairs for their late model vehicles,” Aaron Lowe, a lobbyist for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, told the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee during a May 17 hearing.

While acknowledging a rare instance when automakers have withheld data, such circumstances aren’t widespread enough to warrant legislation like the Barton bill, Mike Stanton, a lobbyist for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, told the subcommittee at the same hearing. He said Barton’s bill is unnecessary and unfairly accuses car makers of limiting access to data.

Congress has pushed the two sides to reach a voluntary solution. That included the creation in 2000 of the National Automotive Service Task Force designed to air and settle differences. However, the two sides have fought over both the size and representation of the board.

Among the disagreements is whether automakers should provide information as to how to override immobilizers used in car security systems. Car makers say that could lead to more car thefts, but aftermarket companies say the information is critical in some repairs.

Automakers also object to providing information on tools to fix cars to third-party vendors. “Aftermarket parts manufacturers want to produce competing repair parts,” Stanton told the subcommittee. Aftermarket officials say they are not after proprietary information.

Opponents of the bill have noted the lack of complaints to the Federal Trade Commission over the issue. But Sandy Bass-Cors, executive director for Coalition for Auto Repair Equality, an aftermarket group, said the process is too slow to be an effective remedy.

“We just can’t wait” for the information, she said.

Bass-Cors accused Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), a powerful backer of the auto industry, of directing Democrats on the subcommittee to vote no on Barton’s bill.

Democratic offices, which she said she couldn’t name, had told CARE that “Dingell was playing hardball.”

But Jodi Seth, a spokeswoman for Dingell, said he did not direct members to vote a certain way.

“When members began hearing more about the bill they soon realized that it was not designed to help consumers,” Seth said.

CARE was “very disappointed” with the departure of some support, Bass-Cors said. But she noted that there are still 100 co-sponsors, including one new Democrat, Rep. John Delahunt (D-Mass.), who signed on Thursday.

“This is not a political bill,” she said.

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