- The Washington Times - Monday, July 8, 2002

Car manufacturers are not sharing vital information needed by independent repair shops to fix cars, and those shops say it is threatening their businesses.
Cars are becoming more complex and require sophisticated systems to diagnose and repair them. But independent service stations say manufacturers are not supplying them with the codes needed for diagnosis and repair, thus forcing many consumers to go to the dealerships for fixes.
Bill Moss, an owner and service director at Auto Advantage in Manassas, said it is a "huge" problem, but so far he has not had to turn customers away.
"Smaller shops are where they have to tell the customer they don't have the equipment to fix the cars," Mr. Moss said. "The dealers don't have to buy the equipment we do; they lease it. So when that piece of equipment becomes obsolete, they turn it in."
Bill Haas, vice president of the Automotive Service Association, says the information lockout is putting independent shops at a competitive disadvantage.
"The technicians are competent and capable, but they are not able to perform. The information has been locked out," he said. "Truth is, the technicians the independents employ are just as well-trained, competent and capable as the technicians the manufacturers employ."
Car manufacturers counter that they are simply protecting their intellectual property and ensuring that their cars get fixed right.
"It is in the manufacturer's best interest that the car is repaired properly," said Eron Shosteck, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Mr. Moss, who works at a BMW-only repair facility, said BMW is particularly proprietary and Volvo is "notoriously difficult to get information from." To counteract the lack of information, Mr. Moss talks to other mechanics in the same situation, and they are in contact with BMW USA to try and reach an agreement to help alleviate the situation.
Most cars are manufactured with onboard diagnostic computers.
When the car malfunctions, the computer alerts the driver. Mr. Shosteck said problems arise when small repair shops replace malfunctioning parts with those that are not manufacturer authorized, which creates confusion for the computer.
If the car malfunctions again, the malfunction will be misdiagnosed, the codes will be incorrect to fix the car and more damage will be done.
Mr. Haas speculates the manufacturers are pressuring the dealerships to offer repair services to help retain business and make money because sales have not been as profitable. He also said the manufacturers might be afraid of being left vulnerable to a lawsuit.
"Ultimately, the consumer will have no choice but to go to the dealer," Mr. Haas said.
"We believe consumers should choose."
One lawmaker agrees that manufacturers should do more to share information about their cars. Sen. Paul Wellstone, Minnesota Democrat, has introduced legislation that would encourage manufacturers to release the information and allow the smaller, independent auto-repair shops to do their jobs.
"It's a problem for car owners because they don't have the choice," Allison Dobson, spokeswoman for Mr. Wellstone said. "It's a matter of safety. If you take a car trip, and you end up in a small town with no dealership, you could be in trouble. This is an important issue on a lot of different levels."
Mr. Moss believes the legislation is critical because it addresses an issue that is fairly new. A ripple effect is also possible when word gets out that vehicles from a certain manufacturer are difficult to service and repair outside of the dealership. Once word gets out, Mr. Moss believes, that manufacturer will lose business because people will go to another manufacturer for vehicles that independents are able to service.
Mr. Wellstone's bill is ready for a hearing in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, and he is prepared to go through with the legislation, though he would be happy if it did not have to come to that, Miss Dobson said.
"The last thing we need in this country is another industry where all the little guys are driven out," Miss Dobson said. "It's certainly not good for consumers. It doesn't ensure that we have the safest cars on the road."

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