MASS. MARKET: Beacon Hill holds the key to car repair debate
By Jon Chesto
The Patriot Ledger
Posted Mar 07, 2008 @ 08:05 PM
Last update Mar 08, 2008 @ 03:11 PM


BOSTON - In many respects, my 1997 Honda Civic CX is an independent mechanic's dream. There are no computerized dashboard displays, airbags or tire pressure monitors. No keyless entry or other fancy security systems. One of the most advanced pieces of electronics is my stereo, a cassette player with knobs so worn that you can't read the labels.


I haven't had a problem yet with getting a good diagnosis for the car, which has long outlived its manufacturer's warranty, when something has gone wrong.
But some repair shop owners have a different story to tell. They say that the march of progress that has put computer chips in all sorts of places in automobiles can make them more user-friendly and safer, but can also make it harder to get the right repair codes to diagnose and fix any problems. There are plenty of times when they've been vexed by the infamous "check engine" light in their customers' cars.


The problem, they say, is that the automakers aren't providing to anyone other than the dealership franchises the full amount of information needed to repair all of these cars. Manufacturers, meanwhile, maintain that they make all the pertinent info available to the independent shops - for a price.
This debate will resurface on Beacon Hill within the next two weeks when the Legislature's consumer protection committee votes on a bill that would require manufacturers to provide all the information that repair shops need to analyze and fix their cars.


This is the first time such a bill has been before the Legislature, although efforts have stalled in Congress to get a similar measure passed on the federal level. The failures in Washington have driven supporters to take up the issue in several states, including Massachusetts.


For Bill Cahill, owner of B.C. Auto Repair on North Street in Randolph, there's no question that the bill is necessary. Cahill says he's invested heavily in computer technology, and pays for access to auto repair information databases run by Alldata and Mitchell 1. But Cahill says he still finds himself working around "roadblocks" that exist because of gaps in manufacturers' data. He says he can often figure out a solution, but it can add up to a couple hours to the time of a repair job.
Rep. James Murphy of Weymouth has seen the problems firsthand at the Murphy Brothers repair shop that his father and his uncle run in Quincy. There, they service Audis and Volkswagens. But the manufacturers, Murphy says, have been reluctant to fully share repair codes for anything connected to car keys, including alarm and ignition systems.


Stan Morin, general manager at the New England Tire chain of four repair shops in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, says his biggest problem is getting info about computerized tire pressure monitors. As the national treasurer of the Alliance of Automotive Service Providers, Morin is working to shepherd this state's version of a "right to repair" bill. He says consumers are losing the ability to shop around for repairs, and he says the problem will get worse as more functions are computerized.
The manufacturers recognize the challenges caused by the increased computerization, but they say they're trying to be as open as possible.
Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, calls the right-to-repair bill a "solution in search of a problem." His group says automakers work diligently to distribute data through CD-ROMs and online databases. He admits that there may be times when certain information is unavailable, but he says manufacturers are always trying to close those gaps.


Territo says automakers don't want to make it more difficult for their customers to get their cars repaired: He says about 80 percent of all post-warranty repairs are done by independent shops, and there's no way dealerships could keep up with that amount of work without the independent garages' help.


Territo's group claims that the right-to-repair bills represent a way for after-market parts companies to make their own knockoff parts. But a provision in the Massachusetts bill specifically prohibits the public release of trade secrets or information related to the design of motor vehicle parts.


Both Sen. Michael Morrissey of Quincy and Rep. Michael Rodrigues of Westport, the two chairmen of the Legislature's consumer protection committee, say they haven't decided yet how they'll vote.


Morrissey, who used to go to Murphy Brothers for repairs when he drove a Volkswagen, says he is leaning toward supporting the small repair shops. Rodrigues says he wants to ensure automakers aren't holding consumers hostage by forcing them to go to a dealership instead of their favorite mechanic.


Both legislators are still trying to sort through the conflicting information provided by both sides. The key question both of them are trying to answer: How often are consumers inconvenienced because of inadequate information about their cars' computer systems?


In the meantime, I'm sticking with my Honda. I'd like to see if I can get another 155,000 miles out of it. At least I know it shouldn't be that hard for a mechanic to figure out how to fix any of the problems I might encounter along the way.


Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at jchesto@ledger.com.