By Aaron Lowe, AAP, senior vice president, Regulatory and Government Affairs, Auto Care Association
Up until recently, anyone wanting to repair a vehicle would simply plug into the vehicle’s on-board diagnostic port, located under the steering wheel, and download the fault codes from the in-vehicle modules. Armed with that diagnostic and repair data, shops, whether dealer or independent, could analyze the issue and determine what parts and procedures were needed to complete the repair for the customers. Shops also had the ability to perform bi-directional diagnostics on the vehicle and to download manufacturer generated program updates to the on-board computers.
However, the days of open access to the OBD port are quickly coming to an end. Beginning in model year 2018, FCA (now Stellantis) started requiring shops, and the repair tools they use, to obtain authorization from the vehicle manufacturer prior to having access to many aspects of the OBD system. Other manufacturers such as Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes and Nissan are quickly following suit. Making matters worse, many electric powered vehicles do not have on-board diagnostics ports and companies like Tesla have been strongly resistant to providing access to repair data for their vehicles outside of their factory owned shops.
In addition, more and more repair and diagnostic data is being made available wirelessly through the telematics system from new vehicles. This in-vehicle data is only accessible to the manufacturer. In Europe, some manufacturers are pushing to move to a system where the data is no longer available from the OBD port, but must be obtained from the manufacturer’s cloud. Under this scenario, the shop would need to go to the cloud and request a manufacturer to provide the diagnostic data for a specific customer’s vehicle sitting in their garage.
The importance of all of these trends is that ultimately it will make the vehicle manufacturer the gatekeeper for all of the data on the vehicle. Once they are in control of this data, they can decide what data to provide, who has access and under what terms. It does not seem that far-fetched to think that those service facilities that purchase a large percentage of their replacement parts from the vehicle manufacturer will be offered better terms than those shops that source their components from independent suppliers.
Reversing the Trend
This issue was key to the decision by the Auto Care Association and the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE) to push for passage in Massachusetts of a ballot initiative, known as Question 1, that would prohibit manufacturers from requiring authorization for access to OBD systems unless they do it in a standardized way. The bill further required car companies to provide vehicle owners direct access to wireless data and the ability to have that diagnostic and repair data transmitted directly to shops they do business with, whether it is the dealer or an independent.
Question 1 was the subject of an intensive, primarily negative campaign that was launched by the vehicle manufacturers and where they spent over $25 million in television ads intended to scare car owners into voting no on access to in-vehicle data. Ultimately, voters decided they wanted control of their data and a competitive repair industry; and Question 1 was approved by a landslide 75-25 percent margin.
The extent of business opportunities that car companies see from access to in-vehicle data is demonstrated by not only the money spent to defeat the ballot question, but also the fact that the manufacturers filed a lawsuit in an attempt to overturn the measure weeks after it was approved by their customers, the Massachusetts voter. That suit was heard in federal court the week of June 14th and a verdict is expected sometime this summer.
Gaining Nationwide Support
The concern about issues related to who will repair vehicles also received national attention in May of this year when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released a report entitled “Nixing the Fix” in which they were highly critical of actions taken by manufacturers to restrict the ability of independents to compete for repair of vehicles. In the report that was submitted to Congress, the FTC stated:
“To address unlawful repair restrictions, the FTC will pursue appropriate law enforcement and regulatory options, as well as consumer education, consistent with our statutory authority. The Commission also stands ready to work with legislators, either at the state or federal level, in order to ensure that consumers have choices when they need to repair products that they purchase and own.”
The effort to address data access and the bigger question of who will be repairing vehicles in the future also will be hitting Congress in 2021. Auto Care is working with the Automotive Aftermarket Suppliers Association (AASA), CAR Coalition and the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) to obtain passage of legislation that will seek to address on a national level the attempts by car companies to control who repairs today’s and tomorrow’s vehicles. The new bill would:
- Prevent vehicle manufacturers from employing barriers to repair and maintenance.
- Require vehicle owners and their designees to have direct access to vehicle generated data.
- Prohibit car companies from mandating particular brands, tools, and equipment.
- Establish a stakeholder advisory committee to examine emerging barriers to repair and maintenance.
Based on the battle in Massachusetts, obtaining passage of this bill by Congress will be a major undertaking. With that in mind, the Auto Care Association will be producing the REPAIR Act Tour. As part of this ongoing event, the association will be working over the next several months with executives in the industry to host meetings with elected officials in their offices, factories and stores. These live and virtual meetings will not only help educate legislators on our industry, but also the important need to ensure that car owners and their repairers have direct and open access to the data generated by vehicles needed to provide a full range of repairs needed to keep today’s and tomorrow’s vehicles on the road.
Your support is needed in the months leading up to (and possibly during) AAPEX – it will be crucial to ensuring competitive maintenance and repair options across the industry for consumers. Stay tuned to news from your Associations on the latest in the battle and how you can mobilize your companies to enact change.
Aaron Lowe, AAP, is senior vice president of regulatory and government affairs for the Auto Care Association. With the Association for more than 35 years, he currently oversees Auto Care’s federal and state legislative and regulatory efforts, focusing on a wide range of environmental, vehicle safety, workplace-health and safety and international trade issues.