February 5, 2013

Long drive for car repair sparks call for legislation

An Aroostook County lawmaker models a bill after a controversial Massachusetts law.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

Daniel Robertson lives in the tiny Aroostook County town of Woodland -- 180 miles from the nearest Subaru dealership in Bangor.

click image to enlarge

Auto technician Bob Burns installs a new exhaust system on a car at 3G’s Tire & Auto Service in Portland. Burns said manufacturers are getting better at sharing information, but it’s still difficult for mechanics to acquire scan codes for many ignition and security systems.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

Last winter, after his daughter crashed her 2009 Impreza, an auto body shop in Presque Isle patched the car back together. But even after the repair, the car's "low tire pressure" light remained on because the shop was unable to reboot the car's computer after one of its tires was replaced. Subaru wouldn't give the shop the computer codes for the low-tire-pressure sensor, Robertson said.

So Robertson and his daughter had to make the six-hour round trip to the Subaru dealer in Bangor to get the light turned off.

"It ruined the day," said Robertson, who works as a sheriff's deputy. "No one was able to put out that light because it's a Subaru secret. It's not just Subaru. They all do it."

Because of that incident, an Aroostook County lawmaker, state Rep. Bernard Ayotte, R-Caswell, has submitted a bill modeled on a new Massachusetts law known as the "Right to Repair Act."

Approved by Bay State voters in November, the law requires car manufacturers to provide access to all repair and diagnostic information and tools at a fair price. Moreover, the law requires automakers to give mechanics access to each manufacturer's diagnostic and repair information using a single interface tool, also known as a "scanner" or "code reader."

Automakers and car dealers say the Massachusetts law is unworkable because a universal interface would require an agreement with all the world's automakers, something that won't be feasible for several years. Meanwhile, independent garages can already purchase scanners -- at several thousand dollars each -- and they can purchase the same software the dealers have, they say.

"Nothing is secret," said Jack Quirk, whose family owns several car dealerships in the state, including Quirk Subaru in Bangor.

Ayotte has yet to provide any language for his bill, L.R. 1216, "An Act To Provide Vehicle Owners and Repair Facilities Access to Vehicle Diagnostic and Repair Information," which he submitted on Robertson's behalf. He said the bill would save rural Maine residents time and money by letting them get their cars repaired at local garages.

Roberston said he got the idea for the legislation after his son, who lives in Boston, told him about the Massachusetts law.

Many independent garages are expected to support the bill. Dennis Anderson, owner of Anderson's Auto Repair in New Sweden, said automobile manufacturers and car dealerships won't provide diagnostic codes for newer motor vehicles sold after 2008.

"We are forced to stay out of the loop," he said. "They've got a monopoly on the market."

Automobile manufacturers are getting better at sharing information, but it's still difficult for mechanics to acquire scan codes for many ignition and security systems, particularly for European models and General Motors cars, said Bob Burns, a technician at 3G's Tire & Auto Service in Portland.

Consumers have no choice but to have their cars serviced at dealerships, which charge more, Burns said.

"That hurts us, and it hurts our customers in the long run because they end up having to pay more money," he said.

In Massachusetts, the coalition that supported the Right to Repair Act included independent garages, automotive aftermarket repair shops and the tire industries. Auto manufacturers led the opposition. Dealerships also opposed the measure.

Automakers would have to re-engineer their vehicles' computer systems to allow for a universal interface, said Daniel Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents most of the world's automakers.

Rather than spend that money, some automakers will probably decide to stop selling their cars in Massachusetts, he said.

(Continued on page 2)

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