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A Key Issue: Information Availability

Posted 12/10/2001
By Levy Joffrion

Information availability has been a hot topic for decades. But never has it been a hotter topic than this year. And all indications are that it won't cool off in 2002.

There are a lot of issues that directly impact the daily operations and profitability of independent automotive service businesses. But the foremost issue is information availability.

Getting original equipment manufacturers to share the technical information necessary to repair a vehicle has long been a problem. George W. “Bud” Merwin III, who retired as president of the Automotive Service Association in December 1998 after nearly 50 years of industry and association service, recalled recently, “During the '60s, ASA made great strides in establishing relationships with other segments of the automotive industry. Regular meetings with the automobile manufacturers took place to discuss repairability and the industry's need for more accurate technical information. Members of the association spent many hours in these meetings making sure the independents' needs were considered.” These comments are from Merwin's guest editorial in the May 2001 issue of AutoInc.

So information availability has long been an important issue to ASA and its members. But today, information availability is even more vital, because cars have changed. They're highly computerized and more complex. You really have to know what you're doing to be able to work on one. And you sure can't if you don't have the technical information you need.

Unfortunately, it's still difficult to get technical information from original equipment manufacturers. But ASA hasn't let up in its efforts to make sure that information is available. And much has been accomplished this year.

In its federal legislative objectives published in January 2001, ASA stated that it “supports legislation and regulations that require original equipment manufacturers to provide all emissions and non-emissions information necessary to repair a vehicle.” And ASA has been busy this year making good on its statement. Among milestones this year in that effort:

  • In the February 2001 issue of AutoInc., Robert L. Redding Jr., ASA's Washington, D.C., representative, expressed concerns about on-board diagnostics (OBD) and the need for information availability.

  • ASA's Collision Division Operations Committee met in Kansas City, Mo., in February to review its activities in 2000 and to discuss its plan of action for 2001. Within the committee there are several subcommittees, each with its own goals and plans, working to represent ASA members' best interest in resolving issues that confront the industry.

    One of the primary goals of the Automotive Manufacturers Subcommittee, which is headed by Mike West, is to address repairability and related issues in a meaningful dialogue with the manufacturers to try to effect improvement. West has told the original equipment manufacturers that collision repairers need better information on future technology so they can prepare for repair issues. Manufacturers were told that if shops are going to repair the cars they build, repairers need to know about major changes well in advance of the vehicles being driven off the showroom floor.

  • The March 2001 AutoInc. included an article by Redding in which he related how his office was busy tracking congressional committee appointments and appointments by the Bush administration because of all the important issues coming up that can affect the automotive industry. He emphasized the aftermarket will be very interested in information availability legislation.

  • In May, ASA's Mechanical Division Operations Committee met in St. Louis to discuss shop licensing, legislation, school-to-work initiatives and information availability.

    Aaron Clements, chairman of the Information Availability Subcommittee, said ASA's goal is to ensure manufacturer repair information is available to - and affordable for - independent shops.

    He told the group that ASA has been on the leading edge of the information availability issue. At both the 1999 and 2000 Congress of Automotive Repair and Service (CARS), ASA hosted representatives from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who are responsible for writing the regulations pertaining to emissions systems. He said many of the concerns expressed by ASA and its members at CARS were reflected in the new proposed regulations released early in May 2001 by the EPA.

    Committee members were also reminded that the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF) was formed at last year's Industry Week to address the issues of service information, technician training, and diagnostic tool and equipment availability for all systems of the automobile, including non-emissions related systems. ASA is represented on NASTF by Redding and Bill Haas, ASA Mechanical Division manager. Redding is co-chair of NASTF's information committee.

    NASTF has established, and continues to update, a service information matrix. The matrix is available to shops and may be accessed from the ASA Web site, www.asashop.org.

  • In June, John Francis Jr. - an ASA Mechanical Division Operations Committee member - gave an OBD information availability demonstration for members of Congress and congressional staffers. Francis owns Francis Automotive Service in West Chester, Pa. His son, John, who is also involved in the family business, joined Francis at the demonstration. The demonstration was held in Washington, D.C., to educate members of Congress about the issue of information availability. Both the U.S. House and Senate committees of jurisdiction were given demonstrations.

  • On June 8, the EPA published its proposed on-board diagnostic service information rule. Then, the EPA held a public hearing in Ann Arbor, Mich., to receive oral testimony on the rule. Haas testified at the public hearing, and ASA submitted formal comments to the EPA Aug. 27.

    Haas testified in support of the rule, but outlined a list of technical issues ASA believed would improve it. He raised concerns about future information needs and encouraged inserting regulatory language that would ensure the administrator of the EPA would not have to go back to the rule-making process if the service sector had difficulties in obtaining information.

    He also pointed out the necessity for a “reasonable cost” test to be applied to the information provided via the Internet to independent repairers. And he reminded the federal panel that repairers still have to purchase non-emissions information in addition to the information covered by this rule-making process.

  • In the September issue of AutoInc., Redding in his “Legislative Analysis” column reported that several members of the U.S. House of Representatives had introduced the Motor Vehicle Owner's Right to Repair Act. Redding said they showed tremendous courage by introducing it because the automobile manufacturers and the new car dealers have opposed any legislative attempts that ensure independent repairers the information necessary to repair vehicles.

    U.S. Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., introduced H.R. 2735 to give independent repairers a level playing field with the new car dealers. It was cosponsored by Reps. Roy Blunt, R-Mo.; Gary Condit, D-Calif.; and Ed Bryant, R-Tenn.

    Barton, in a floor statement made Aug. 2, said, “Mr. Speaker, today I am introducing the Motor Vehicle Owner's Right to Repair Act. As the name implies, this bill will preserve a vehicle owner's freedom to choose where, how and by whom to repair their vehicles as well as their choice in car parts.”

    In an ASA survey several years ago, a very small percentage of repairers said they had to turn vehicles away because of the lack of service information. This number has grown tenfold since that time.

    Barton continued, “Right now, thousands of vehicle owners are being turned away from their local repair facility. They are being denied the choice of working on their own vehicles, or the choice of replacement parts because information necessary to make these repairs or integrate replacement parts is not readily available or not available at all. This isn't the way it used to be.”

  • On Oct. 3, Towns spoke at length to Congress about the importance of passing H.R. 2735. Towns told his fellow members of Congress that "for several years, Congress mandated that vehicles come manufactured with a computer system to monitor vehicle emissions. As vehicles have advanced, so have the computer systems installed - which now control vital systems such as brakes, ignition, ignition keys, air bags, steering mechanisms and climate control. What began as a clean air measure became an unintended 'vehicle in itself' to a repair and parts information monopoly by car manufacturers.

    “The end result is that motorists have become chained to the car manufacturers and their car dealers in order to have their vehicles repaired and parts replaced ... this lockout of information has forced motorists to return to car dealers and forced them in many instances into paying higher, noncompetitive costs. Simple tasks such as having an ignition key duplicated can cost $45 or more.”

  • In November, ASA sent a letter to its members urging them to work for the bill's passage so they would be able to get the information they need to repair increasingly complex vehicles. Without access to this information, the letter pointed out, “you will likely be referring an ever-increasing number of customers to dealer service centers. From your customers' viewpoint, passage of this will enable them to continue bringing their cars to you for service. If the bill fails, they may not have that choice and may be forced to return to the dealer.”

    ASA enclosed a customer petition, which it is asking members to get their customers to sign, then mail the signed petitions back to ASA by Feb. 15, 2002. ASA will deliver the petitions to Congress before the vote on H.R. 2735.

In summary, it has been a tough fight to get manufacturers to share repair information with independent shops. And it's not over yet.

But maybe, as Clements said earlier this year, "Progress is being made, inch by inch. It's like the turtle and the hare. Persistence will pay off; we just have to keep going until the race is over."

Much has been done in years past and especially in 2001. And, as someone once said, “you ain't seen nothing yet.” The new year - and the possibility of getting H.R. 2735 passed into law - holds great promise.

Francis, talking recently about his efforts in Washington, D.C., said, “What we have achieved in 2001 is that we have gotten the attention of the House and the Senate. As a result, the automakers are also listening. I am hoping that H.R. 2735 will pass or that we will reach an agreement with the automakers to make all information available to independent repair shops at a reasonable cost.”

Redding said, “ASA believes that a solution to the information availability problem is near and will continue to work with the Congress and industry to assure independents the information they need to operate viably in the future.”


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