Categorized | happenings

Do auto buyers have a “right to repair”?

Auto engine
Make sense? If the auto companies have their way, only dealers will be able to make sense of your car.

In all the media storm about bailing out GM and Chrysler along with the multi-billion dollar bailout of auto dealers we call Cash For Clunkers, a political group primarily representing small repair shops is suddenly finding some wind in its sails. Called “Right To Repair,” these intrepid folks have been fighting the numerous ways auto companies have found to shut out all but dealers in the auto repair market and are primarily responsible for a “Right To Repair” bill making it’s way through Congress as we speak.


But who’s right here? Should the auto companies have the right to keep repair information proprietary? Or does the good of the consumer and small business take precedence?

Back in the good old days, I remember tearing apart a Volkswagen and putting it back together, replacing the engine on a Vega, and adding all sorts of aftermarket wonders to my Ford Fairlane. Cars back then were as easy as Legos. One of my high school buddies even rented a car and, in the week he had it, swapped engines with his own identical car (with much more mileage on it).

But now, I don’t even dare change the spark plugs. I have much more confidence maintaining a Cray supercomputer than the alien mystery device under the hood of my car. Which makes it a darn good thing that everything in that alien mystery device is computerized. Something goes wrong and the computer turns on the light that says “Check Engine.”

Turns out that all a mechanic has to do is plug into your car’s computer and it spits out a bunch of codes. Using those codes, the mechanic can make the needed repairs and, with another batch of codes, reboot your computer and make that Check Engine light go off.

Problem is, auto makers are starting to give some of those codes only to auto dealers and shutting out every other kind of repair shop. Which means that independent mechanics sometimes can’t make the repairs, thus forcing consumers to take the car to pricier dealerships. And auto companies are keeping the reboot codes secret, so even if an independent shop can make those repairs, that durned Check Engine light doesn’t go away. (As a quick fix to the Check Engine light, the Car Talk guys suggest a good strip of black tape).

Should the auto companies be required to make this diagnostic and computer information available to everyone? Should they have the right in a free enterprise system to restrict consumer repair options to dealers alone?

The Right To Repair organization, which you don’t hear about in the mainstream media (the lion’s share of MSM advertising comes from car companies, after all), is busy sponsoring and lobbying for legislation that would require auto companies to make all repair information available to all repair shops. They argue that dealers should not have special information, such as rebooting the computer to shut off the Check Engine light, that is unavailable to independent shops.

This legislation makes sense from two perspectives: it provides consumers with more repair options and provides opportunities for businesses both small and large. Offering consumers several repair options — not just dealerships — allows them to save money, develop a relationship with their repair shop, and have the vehicle repaired if it breaks down far from a dealer. It’s good for business because it provides rather than restricts opportunities — money that would otherwise go into inflating dealership profits, goes to growing businesses and creating jobs.

But shouldn’t auto companies be able to give repair information to anyone they want to? They’ve developed the codes and software; if they only want dealers to have this information, isn’t that their right? It’s their information, after all.

And this is even more critical when a car is under warranty. If you take your warrantied vehicle to a repair shop that doesn’t know what it’s doing, should the auto company be responsible under their warranty for any boo-boos that repair shop does?

It is, however, a well-worn truth that competition is better for businesses and consumers than no competition. A monopoly on car repairs by dealers will steadily increase the price and decrease the quality of repairs. That’s how monopolies work. In the end, this will be bad for the auto companies. If GM gets a reputation for bad repair work and price gouging on those repairs, then GM will lose car sales. If buyers learn that purchasing a Honda means that you’re always tied to dealership repairs at a steep premium, no matter how small the repair, they’re going to start looking for brands, such as Volkswagen, that offer them more repair options than just the dealerships.

In other words, it’s a dumb business decision. And we’ve already seen how much it costs taxpayers when car companies make dumb business decisions.

Now maybe it’s because I believe that business should always be customer-centered, or maybe it’s because I remember a time when all you needed was a copy of Chilton’s to hack away at your car, but my natural instinct is to believe that repair information belongs to the buyer of the vehicle. If you purchase a vehicle, you’re also purchasing the information required to fix the car, including diagnostic and reboot codes. It doesn’t belong to the auto company, it belongs to you just as the engine, the axles, and the radio belong to you. If you can take your engine, your axle, your radio, and all the rest of your car to a repair shop, the information on how to fix it should come to.

That’s the “customer-centered” business solution. And businesses always do better when they are fervently customer-centered than when they’re not (Apple being a significant exception). When companies move away from customer-centered solutions (in this case, the auto companies are adopting a dealer-centered solution), they inevitably lose sales. So, in an era when taxpayers are chipping in to preserve the profitability of the car companies, it makes sense to require them to adopt the most competitive, customer-centered direction. If it requires legislation to get them to do the right business move, then so be it. I don’t relish the prospect of bailing out GM again ten years from now as people eschew their product because they can only be repaired at dealerships.

Keep in mind: it’s okay to think of your customers as a source of money. But that only works if you think of yourself as a source of value for the customer.

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