Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some thoughts on Right to Repair


You may have read that Massachusetts is voting this June 28 on a piece of legislation called Right to Repair (R2R) which is touted as a law that will force carmakers to give independent repair shops (the so-called little guys) the same access to car repair data as franchised dealers.

The claim is that this law will save consumers tons of money while giving them a newfound freedom of choice. Unfortunately, it won’t.

Here’s why that law is a waste of time and money.

Right to Repair is a proposed law to give small shops access to repair information. Giving access implies that access is denied today. It isn’t.

Small repair shops already have equal access to service information. I know that because I own a shop and I access that info every day. The National Auto Service Task Force was established almost ten years ago in response to widespread consumer complaints about access to service data and test tools. Thanks to NASTF efforts and Federal legislation, any shop can log onto Ford or BMW or any other carmaker’s database and buy daily, weekly, or monthly subscriptions to service data; the very same data their dealers have.

The only data that is restricted on those websites relates to vehicle security and the coding of keys. That same data is restricted to dealer technicians to prevent vehicle theft. It’s sometimes a hassle, but the carmakers are required to do that for motorist’s own security. Would you want any schmuck to be able to order keys for your car off the web? I thought not.

There was a time when carmakers did hold back information and it was very frustrating. They also restricted access to their proprietary service tools. All that changed thanks to the Federal government stepping in about ten years ago. In my opinion, the information access problem is essentially solved. The problems that remain are being worked out cooperatively by the NASTF, with no need for new state laws.

The proposed R2R law purports to ensure customers can choose where to get their cars fixed. Customers have always had that right. The smarter question to ask is, Who is qualified to fix your car? If you have a high-end car like we work on, your choices are indeed limited. However, you are not limited by “right to repair” issues. You are limited because there are not many people who are both qualified and possessed of the specialized tools to properly service a late-model Mercedes, BMW, or Land Rover.

That brings us to the biggest issue in the aftermarket auto service industry: technician and shop competence. I can’t tell you how many times I hear xxx ripped me off, or xxx screwed me, or xxx fixed my car and it’s worse than before. 99% of those complaints stem from incompetence, in my experience. Only a tiny fraction results from dishonesty or malice.

At Robison Service everyone in the shop attends brand and system specific training every year to stay current. We would be lost without that training and the backup of tech support from Bosch and our test system manufacturers. But training is costly, and few independent shops do it. Dealers have to do it to keep their franchise. We have to do it because we’re committed to being the best.

The second (related) issue is tooling. The days of fixing 99% of the cars with a box of hand tools are long gone. It’s an electronic world, and you’ll need ten to twenty grand for the diagnostic tools for any high-end car, if you want to have dealer-level capability. Otherwise, you’ll be telling customers you can’t do this, or that. You will never hear we can’t do that, you have to go to the dealer at Robison Service. But that certainty comes at high cost; hundreds of thousands invested in tooling and more every year.

Luckily, the tools are cheaper for ordinary cars, and training is more available. Even still few independents avail themselves of it.

Training and tooling are the two principal reasons independents can’t fix cars properly. Both those things are available, at the same cost a dealer would pay. The playing field is already level, thanks to Federal legislation passed in the 1996-2002 time frame.

Another claim is that drivers will be protected because they will get notice of recalls and service bulletins. Once again, that is a problem that’s long been solved. Every manufacturer service website provides that service when you input a VIN. In addition, Alldata and Mitchell (the two principal aftermarket service data suppliers) offer the same thing. All you have to do is buy the subscription. Like us, and every other properly equipped shop or dealership.

Finally, they claim this bill will protect jobs. How? We are not losing our jobs now. This bill will not cause more cars to be fixed in Massachusetts. The problem with jobs in auto service is that we have sky-high unemployment where I live and work. Many of our customers are struggling to stay above water, and car repair is a low priority. That reality drives service workflow for most shops.

I don’t think passage of this bill would hurt me, or my shop. However, it certainly won’t help. What it represents is a waste of time, and political posturing, when we have real and pressing problems to solve elsewhere. Let’s drop this and spend time solving our employment and housing crises. Bills like this are nothing but red herrings to draw people from the real issues.

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