Mechanics take on automakers

Proprietary information at issue in ‘right-to-repair’ fight

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BOSTON | When Mary Burke recently took her 2007 Honda Element with its worn-out ignition switch to her regular repair shop, the mechanic didn’t have the software to fix the problem.

The shop’s owner, Glenn Wilder, said he had to take Miss Burke’s car to a Honda dealership because those are the only places Honda releases the computer software he needed. Miss Burke said she paid much more for the repair than she would have at Wilder’s shop and was without her car for a day.

“I was totally frustrated and upset with the whole situation and the way Honda had a stranglehold on how Glenn had to do it,” said Miss Burke, who lives in Marshfield, 30 miles southeast of Boston.

Now mom-and-pop repair shops like Wilder Brothers American Car Care Center in Scituate, Mass., are pushing a bill that would require auto manufacturers to provide, at a price, all the diagnostic and software information they make available to their dealerships.

Massachusetts would become the first state to approve the so-called auto “right-to-repair” law. The state Senate recently passed it, and it’s pending in the House. Industry observers say passage of the bill in Massachusetts could drive similar legislative efforts in other states.

Car dealers and manufacturers, including Honda, have vigorously opposed the right-to-repair bill on the federal level and in other states, such as New Jersey and Arizona. They say the push for the bill isn’t about consumers, but about auto parts.

A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an association of 11 vehicle manufacturers, including Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co., said aftermarket-parts companies are seeking information that would enable them to make inexpensive parts in foreign countries without incurring research-and-development costs.

“This is a thinly veiled attempt by parts manufacturers to lower the cost of remanufacturing original equipment of manufacturer parts,” alliance spokesman Charles Territo said. “Once this information is released, that intellectual property will be in China by the end of the month.”

But supporters of the bill say it’s about giving consumers choices.

“Consumers pay a lot of money for cars, and they should be able to choose where they can get them repaired,” said Art Kinsman, spokesman for the Right to Repair Coalition, which represents more than 1,000 Massachusetts mechanics supporting the legislation.

Midsize and large repair shops also have said they would benefit from a right-to-repair law.

Every day, mechanics at Direct Tire and Auto Service’s four locations get a handful of cars they can’t fix, so customers are sent to dealers, CEO Barry Steinberg said.

“If I had the same equipment, it would mean more business for me and help me serve more customers’ needs,” he said.

But not all repair shops agree the state needs to change the current system.

Rusty Savignac, co-owner of Paxton Garage in Paxton, said he uses subscriptions to websites that provide answers to any repair questions he has.

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