- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 31, 2002

Repair-shop owners told lawmakers yesterday that they are losing business because auto manufacturers aren't sharing critical information about their increasingly high-tech cars.

"Cars are getting more complicated, and we can't fix problems concerning anti-lock brakes, steering, power windows or airbags without the right equipment and codes," said John Vallely, owner of an independent auto-repair business in Elgin, Ill.

He's not alone.

Automotive associations and independent mechanics, at yesterday's Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, urged lawmakers to enact legislation that would require auto manufacturers to disclose information on onboard diagnostic (OBD) systems at affordable prices to auto technicians.

"Emissions and nonemissions services information are being denied to the independent repairer at an increasing rate," said Bill Haas, vice president of the Automotive Service Association.

Mr. Haas said independent technicians cannot diagnose and repair critical safety systems, such as anti-lock brakes, airbags, and electronic traction and stability control, without access to vehicle data.

"The only alternative left to the customer is to send their car to the dealer to get it fixed," he said.

Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, who introduced the Motor Vehicle Owner's Right to Repair Act, said car shops have the right to see information on the repair, diagnosing or servicing of a vehicle under the Clear Air Act of 1990.

"However, technicians are still being denied access to the information," he said. "The effect is to reduce consumer choice for auto-repair services, as well as endanger the livelihood of thousands of small independent repair shops across the country."

There are about 209 million cars and light trucks in the nation, Mr. Haas said. "We estimate there are around 178,000 independent repairers who take care of more than 1 billion repair orders and services annually."

John Nielsen, AAA's director of automotive services and repair, said 70 percent to 80 percent of vehicle servicing is done through non-dealer shops.

"We aren't concluding that customers shouldn't go to their dealers to get cars fixed," Mr. Nielsen said. "But they should have the right to send their car to the corner repair shop and get it completely fixed."

Dale Feste, owner of an auto-repair shop in Hopkins, Minn., said manufacturers don't sell enough of the necessary equipment to repair computer-related problems.

Auto-industry officials conceded that information has not gotten to all private mechanics in the past.

But John Cabaniss, director of environment and energy for the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, said the bill is not necessary because manufacturers are closing the information gaps with independent technicians.

Mr. Cabaniss said the industry is working to resolve the miscommunication problems and to train private mechanics to use the latest equipment.

"The last thing we want is to have our customers angry because they had to drive out of the way to a dealer to get their car fixed, instead of having a trusted repair shop do it," he said.

The Senate committee is expected to discuss the bill for another two weeks before bringing it to a vote.

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