Right to Repair Bill Passes Massachusetts Senate

The Massachusetts State Senate late Thursday evening approved a Right to Repair bill that would force automakers to make available repair information to sell all non-proprietary repair information to local neighborhood auto technicians, repair shops and new car dealers so they can all repair vehicles using the same codes provided by the manufacturers.

A version of the bill, omitting dealerships, is currently before the Massachusetts house, with unknown prospects. However, more than 100,000 citizens signed a Right to Repair ballot initiative earlier this year. If the legislature does not pass a final bill, the state’s consumers will get to vote on the November ballot. Recent polls have shown support for Right to Repair as high as 87%.

The proposed Massachusetts law would require that automakers provide independent shops with access to diagnostic software that authorized dealers have by using a generic lap top computer through a standardized vehicle interface.

A similar national measure, the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act (H.R. 1449), died in 2011 during the 112th ‘do nothing’ U.S. Congress. There has been no movement on the bill this year. (See AAA Asks Congress Yet Again to Pass “Right to Repair Act”) Various forms of Right to Repair bills have been tied up in committee by successive Congresses since 2002.

It is unremarkable that the National Association of Automobile Dealers opposes the legislation. NADA says that automakers provide emissions service and some other data available to any technician who needs it already. About $295 billion spent annually in auto repair products and services.

Dealerships used to thrive on automaker-paid warranty repairs, paid for by the factory at reduced labor rates. In order to compensate technicians for this factory-dictated lower rate, dealers charged higher rates for non-warranty auto parts and repairs. In effect, car owners were subsidizing the cost of poor quality at automakers if they went to a factory store for auto repairs. One recent survey put costs on average at 34% more at dealerships compared with independent shops.

This created a huge – and still thriving – independent auto aftermarket comprised of accessory, repair, collision, and oil change shops that often charge lower labor rates and install independently produced parts, which also can be less expensive. The independent shop owners say they are being squeezed out of auto repairs as more electronics are added to new vehicles.

In 2012, 72% of vehicle owners said their latest dealer service visit was for maintenance rather than repair, an increase from 63% in 2011, according to J.D. Power. Customer satisfaction with maintenance visits is usually higher than satisfaction with repair visits when something breaks, since routine maintenance tends to be less expensive, less time-consuming and increasingly free under a new vehicle warranty or at least competitively priced with independents.

Potentially, the market for auto repairs is poised to boom. The average length of ownership of light vehicles that were purchased as new has risen to a record 71.4 months, or nearly six years, according to the latest Polk registration data.  Consumers who purchased used vehicles held them nearly 49.9 months. Combined, new and used vehicle owners are holding on to their vehicles for an average 57 months.

The length of vehicle ownership among U.S. consumers has increased 23% since the third quarter of 2008 in the waning years of the Bush Administration when the Great Recession was in full swing and the global financial markets were collapsing.

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About Kenneth Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print, broadcast and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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