The Right to Repair–Please Sir, may I fix my car?

For better or worse people have been working on their own cars for a hundred years or more.  On top of that, there are plenty of non-dealership repair shops out there that have been working on owners cars, too. 

In the days when automobiles were primarily a conglomeration of mechanical parts all it seemed to take was a reasonable affinity for mechanical things and access to a repair manual.  Certainly there were the people that stretched their mechanical skill to the point that they had created a basket case or had fixed the wrong problem. 

Then there were the back yard mechanics that pretty much knew what they were doing and were able to successfully modify their cars above and beyond what the factory had expected.  They called these people “hot rodders”. 

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Some of these hot rod types went racing and made a name for themselves and their creations.  Some of them went back to the public automotive arena and created some legendary performance cars.  Carol Shelby, for example with the Cobra and the Tiger.

So you could pick up some tools at Sears and find yourself a Haynes manual for your vehicle and learn to change your own spark plugs and oil.  Maybe you would move up to replacing your battery or even try doing your own brake job.  Local auto parts stores have catered to the “do it yourself” mechanics and now there is Auto Zone, Advanced Auto, and O’Reily’s making it easy for home mechanics to get parts and even borrow tools for some pretty involved car projects.

It used to be that once that car you bought from a dealer went out of warranty you headed for your favorite independent garage and found the joys of not having to deal with a service manager or parts counter.  The independent service garage could do a great job keeping your car in shape and save you a good deal of money.

But things have changed.  At first it just seemed like it was only a few foreign car makes that made it difficult to perform diagnosis or maybe they just were hard to find parts for.  So the home mechanic couldn’t find any reference material on their BMW, well the local garage started to have similar problems. 

It wasn’t just the few foreign makes either.  Special tools and special diagnostics were needed.  Sure OBD II was a standard and the local auto parts stores would sell you an OBD II scanner, but sometimes it just wasn’t enough.  There were functions that only a dealer’s service personal had access to. 

Service jobs that were performed as a routine service, like brake jobs and timing belt replacements required a special reset to the car’s computer that only the dealerships service department could do.  The car companies said that with all the new requirements of stability control and other computerized systems in current cars it wasn’t safe to have non-dealership services performed.  Data and tools were withheld from certified mechanics at independent garages and the automotive hobbyist was left hanging with fewer and fewer resources available.

Cars have become rolling complex networks of sensors and automated controls.  With government mandated stability control systems such as braking and steering are tightly integrated and can be compromised with an incorrectly performed alignment or brake pad replacement.  Cars also have been evolving to ever more sophisticated anti-theft systems integrated into the designs instead of being an aftermarket add-on.  Entertainment systems are also more integrated into the cars’ control systems making post-sale enhancements with non-factory equipment more problematic.

Currently a bill is being debated in the Massachusetts legislature known as the ‘Right to Repair’.  It would guarantee the right of independent garages and car owner to be able to obtain the tools and information that car companies now restrict to their own service departments. 

The outcome of this legislation will have a far reaching effect.  It could be the impetus to similar legislation in other states or it might prompt national legislation. 

Certainly if the auto companies continue to restrict access they will evolve to become the only alternative for car repair.  About twenty years ago the dealerships woke up to the fact that just focusing on selling cars and trucks left a lot on the table.  Over the past couple of decades they have been building up the revenues from service and parts departments.  The design of car’s has changed to have all the systems integrated to the point that if you have a rain sensing windshield you may only replace it with a factory unit. 

Over time this could mean that auto recycling yards would lose their value as replacement parts became more specific to a particular car.  Things as simple as the replacement of door and window controls would have to be “recognized” by the car’s computer as valid devices and require a visit to a dealership to get that done.  If you don’t go to the dealership to get the job performed in the first place.

Auto makers claim that taking this kind of information and advance tools would threaten their ability to protect their intellectual property, the safety of their customers, and would lead to inferior replacement parts being made by non-US manufacturing.

Personally I find it frustrating to be confronted with limitations on what I can tackle in terms of repairs and modifications on my own.  But none of my current vehicles were manufactured after 2006 and there have been vast changes made in terms of complexity and computer integration since then.

What’s the right answer?  That remains to be seen.  For either argument there will be a price to pay.

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5 Responses to The Right to Repair–Please Sir, may I fix my car?

  1. Lee K says:

    Take BMW batteries, for instance. You practically HAVE to go to a dealer now to get a new battery, as programming of the charging system is required in order for the new battery to be properly introduced. Many 3 Series owners have learned that hard way that going down to Pep Boys and getting a new battery (one of the simplist DIY jobs) results in the batteries failing in a matter of months. Of course, the dealer charges nearly $500 for such a procedure. Only an independent shop that has the necessary software to interface with BMWs is going to be able to make that replacement properly, and that surely has to mean an expensive investment for the shop.

  2. Lester Finnen says:

    Car repairs can really be costly so always take good care of your car to avoid costly repairs in the future. Proper maintennance is essential when dealing with automotive stuffs. *:.”:

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  4. Noel Ward says:

    The dealers and manufacturers are running a scam on the public that I hope we’ll see national legislation to correct (but I’m not holding my breath). They both know they don’t have the capacity to service every car they’ve sold in the past 10 years, but they want to get your ride in their clutches so they can find half a dozen things to hose you for, at full retail and $100-130/hour. There’s no such thing as an honest car dealer or manufacturer.

    The main reason few cars built in the last 10 years have any appeal to me is because I can’t do stuff I should be able to do myself without having to connect to the car’s computer systems. I like my old-school cars–the ones with one computer–and I have a honest indy shop to do work I can’t or won’t do, and plan to run these cars as long as I can.

  5. Rickey Mertins says:

    There are three main criteria used in pricing any given auto repair. The first is the labor rate, or what the shop charges for the time and expertise that goes into repairing your vehicle. The second is for the parts themselves, and whatever other shop support materials are used in the process of the repair. The third area to consider are the fixed costs or overhead that the repair shop has to cover, but that doesn’t get reflected on your bill.”

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