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Charlie GormanMarch Madness

Its “Right to Repair” Season Again

Editorial by Charlie Gorman

Several states are introducing or reintroducing so-called Right to Repair (R2R) bills into their legislatures this year.  The opponents and proponents have flocked to each state to give testimony, hire lobbyists and spend huge amounts of money in an attempt to persuade legislators that their position on this volatile issue is the correct one.  The arguments are the same as they have been for some time now.  In essence, the debate has two sides:

R2R proponents claim legislation is required that compels vehicle manufacturers to provide the repair information and tools necessary for them to repair vehicles to the same level franchised dealers can.  They say that not all information required to repair vehicles is available to the aftermarket.  They claim that vehicle manufacturers will discontinue offering some of the information they now provide if the constant threat of legislation goes away.  They claim that the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF), an industry effort designed to identify gaps in vehicle manufacturer service information, is an ineffective tool, made up of one person and organized by the vehicle manufacturers.  They say that it takes too long for requests to be answered and often, the answers are not satisfactory.

Opponents claim a law is not required.  All the information is already available and the little bit that might not be, is effectively managed by the NASTF process.  The NASTF process allows technicians to file missing information requests  (IRs) which are then acted on by the vehicle manufacturers.  They claim the proponents are not interested in service information alone.  They say that this is an attempt by large parts companies to get intellectual property (trade secrets) that would allow them to manufacture (copy) parts that will then be made overseas.

Neither side of the R2R argument is all right or all wrong.  Each side's statements are biased toward whichever side of the R2R issue they have taken.  These are classic cases of limiting the truth to fit one's side of the argument or bending the truth to bolster their position.  All perfectly legal and expected I suppose, but this has been going on for too long.  Let's analyze this in more detail.

Are the vehicle manufacturers right when they say this is about parts companies robbing trade secrets and intellectual property? No.  The R2R proponents have said over and over that they are not interested in trade secrets and the language in the proposed legislation clearly exempts trade secrets from the information they are requesting.  So, why are the parts companies so involved in the R2R effort?  Could it be that they know that the more repair information the aftermarket can get their hands on, the more likely aftermarket repair shops will be able to perform complex repair jobs that otherwise would go to the new car dealer?  The more jobs the aftermarket can perform, the more aftermarket parts will be sold.  This is the more likely scenario regarding parts company involvement in R2R.  Since most vehicle manufacturers have signed the NASTF agreement stating that they will provide the necessary information for the aftermarket to compete with their dealerships, they have effectively allowed this process.  There is no conspiracy here.  This is just the so-called “level playing field" everyone says they want.

Are the pro R2R folks right when they say that NASTF is ineffective?  No.  NASTF has made significant progress.  The IR process does work usually, but not in every case.

The committees under the board of directors are active and have been successful in getting information previously unavailable to the aftermarket, but there is still some missing information.  Significant gaps exist in the tool and equipment and vehicle security areas.  The Vehicle Security Committee has done outstanding work in designing and carrying out the Secure Data Release Model (SDRM), a method by which vehicle manufactures can offer key and module initialization codes to the aftermarket in a secure fashion, but not all vehicle manufactures use this system for all their initialization requirements.

While It is true that NASTF has only one full-time person assigned to the organization's activities, that person is backed by the entire staff of the management company that administers NASTF's day to day activities and backed even further by hundreds of hard-working volunteers that believe in what NASTF is doing.

Does NASTF take too long to resolve IRs?  Yes and no.  NASTF is  not a repair information source, nor is it a clearinghouse.  Yes, if a requester needs to be steered to information that already exists, this can be done quickly through NASTF, but the organization's real value is in its capability to determine and deliberate whether information requests are legitimate and if they are, negotiate for access to that information.  Although this process takes time, it is light years faster than any form of litigation.  Current proposed R2R legislation states that if a shop or technician thinks that he or she is not receiving information, they should file a complaint with the their state's Attorney General who will in turn try to get the vehicle manufacturer to comply.  If the vehicle manufacturer refuses, the case goes to court, not a fast or inexpensive process at all.

Some delays are caused by the inability of some vehicle manufacturer employees to persuade their senior management that compliance with some information requests need to be acted on.  It is a lot easier and faster for a lower-level employee to persuade management that certain information needs to be provided to the aftermarket if there is a legal requirement to do so.  The weaker the requirement, the more likely the lower level employee will receive push-back from senior mamangement.  Again, this is much more prevelent in the tool and security areas than it is in the service information area.

If it seems like NASTF is a political football in all this, it is!  NASTF is supposed to be neutral on the R2R issue and believe me, I can tell you as a board member that the board of directors has done everything possible to try to maintain neutrality.  But neither side in the R2R debate is willing to let that happen.  Mischaracterizations of NASTF by both sides beg for clarification but clarification requires involvement and involvement inevitably will be misinterpreted as taking sides, as will probably be the case with this editorial.

I testified before the U.S. Congress for NASTF in 2006.  I think I presented a neutral viewpoint that praised the work NASTF had done up to that point while pointing out that both sides of the R2R debate were overstating their case.  I was never asked to testify again.  Why?  I think it is because my testimony did not support one side or the other enough.  In a world where legislators are being asked to choose one side of an argument over another, testimony that finds fault with each side can be considered useless by both.  Since it is the 'sides' that choose the witnesses who will testify, neither side wants to invite someone who cannot or will not bolster their position on the issue.

It is interesting that although NASTF has made significant progress toward its goals, the R2R antagonists have not moved one inch.  Both sides are exactly where they were five years ago.  Both sides have claimed outrage over what has been said about them by the other side, but the outrage for me is not what each side says about the other, it is the incredible bullheadedness demonstrated by both sides that cause them to do the exact same thing year after year. 

The time and money spent on this issue is truly outrageous.  The industry should be angry with both sides for not coming to a compromise long ago. Both sides should be embarrassed that although R2R was initiated in the United States, Europe and Canada have beat us to a solution.

In Canada's case they have formed a group called CASIS (Canadian Automotive Service Information Standard) that enjoys the participation of all service related segments of automotive repair.  There is no R2R law, but the Canadian federal government was involved in its formation and participates in some of its activities.  In Europe there is legislation and again, full participation by all automotive repair industry segments.  In both cases, the fight about whether an R2R law should be passed is over.

So what is the solution?  I think clearly NASTF has proven itself to be a very capable and valuable organization, but it would be even stronger and more valuable if it were approved or sanctioned by government as the place where information gaps are determined and resolved.

I am not calling for a law that allows just anyone to file a lawsuit because they think they are missing some information.  I am asking for a plan where government empowers NASTF to make these decisions, thus keeping the government out of the decision process.

Government is only needed to force all parties into the NASTF process.  I do not know exactly how this can be done.  I am not a politician, lawyer or lobbyist, but imagine what kind of organization NASTF could be if  everyone participated and we could take some of the money now being used by R2R lobbyists on both sides of the issue to fund it.

I am sure others can put more meat on the bone regarding my idea, but we cannot continue to fight the same battle, year after year... and state after state.  If nothing else, I hope this editorial causes the debate to turn away from legislation vs. no legislatuion to how can we strengthen NASTF and get on with the work of finding solutions to information availability issues.

This could be a win-win for all parties.  R2R folks get their enforcement and the anti-R2R folks get to continue the NASTF effort.  And, of course, both sides have to give up something.  The pro-R2R people have to accept NASTF and join the effort, while the anti-R2R people will have to accept some government empowerment.  isn't that what compromise is?  You give up something so that you achieve your most important goals.