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Report: Independent shops face repair information limitations but do have access

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Collision Repair | Repair Operations
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A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office provides a somewhat vague answer to the “right to repair” question — it isn’t a matter of access for independent repair shops; access exists, but is either limited by OEMs or at a cost that shops say they can’t afford.

“A reduction in the ability of independent repair shops to conduct repair work could reduce consumer repair choices, whether that reduction is due to limited access to the information, data, and tools needed for repair or to an unwillingness or inability to keep up with technological changes,” GAO wrote. “In addition, a disparity in access to telematics data compared to dealerships could put independent repair shops at a competitive disadvantage. These potential effects could increase prices for consumers as well as affect consumers in other ways.”

GAO notes that a 2014 memorandum of understanding (MOU) between automakers and the automotive aftermarket has “generally resulted in independent repair shops not associated with vehicle manufacturers having access to the information, data, and tools needed for vehicle repairs.”

“Stakeholders we interviewed, and a nongeneralizable review of a set of complaints, suggest independent repair shops may face some access limitations,” the report states. “Advanced vehicle technologies may make repairs more expensive and complex because they require additional knowledge, equipment, and other investments.

“Such issues could particularly affect some independent repair shops that are unable to make such investments. In addition, according to some independent repair stakeholders, the wireless transfer of data between vehicles and automakers may disadvantage independent repair shops compared to dealerships.”

Only four of the 14 independent repair stakeholders, as GAO referred to them in the report, were shops, and none were collision-specific. GAO Physical Infrastructure Issues Director Elizabeth Repko told Repairer Driven News collision shops weren’t interviewed because GAO felt independent collision repairer concerns were covered by talking to associations and others that represent them, including the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS).

“We also wanted to examine a little bit the relationship between dealerships and independent repair shops and one of the things we talk about in the report is that data from the National Automobile Dealers Association says all dealerships have mechanical repair centers for their franchise agreements, but only about a third have body shops,” Repko said.

She added that, overall, the interviews showed “discussion both of no access and of limited access” for independent repairers.

“There were folks that we talked to who definitely thought that access to tools and information don’t need to be free,” she said. “They thought that there could be cost, but the cost should be reasonable.”

GAO was asked by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL-9) and ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Innovation, Data, and Commerce Committee on Energy and Commerce to review the effects of changing vehicle technologies on vehicle right-to-repair. The report looks at how vehicle technology changes could affect competition and consumer choice in the repair market, according to the report. Actions related to the issue by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) were also reviewed, GAO said.

GAO found that in addition to the possible necessity of replacement parts, technicians also need the following to conduct repairs:

    • “Information on the vehicle and its components, such as wiring diagrams and repair manuals detailing how to conduct repairs;
    • “Vehicle health and repair data, including diagnostic error codes that help a technician determine needed maintenance or repairs; and
    • “Diagnostic scan tools to access a vehicle’s health and repair data.”

The report notes that telematics information may be needed sometimes for repairs, likely for diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) and mechanical repairs, and OEMs that provide access to it provide only what’s necessary. Two automakers that were interviewed said they provide access to some telematics repair and diagnostic data, and provide a similar level of access to independent repair shops, according to the report.

“For example, one automaker provides access to telematics data to independent repair shops in some circumstances when it may be useful, but not necessary, for a repair, such as to provide historical information on the vehicle’s health,” the report says. “All the automakers said telematics data are not currently needed to diagnose or repair a vehicle, as all the necessary data are available through the physical port in the vehicle. Most (11 of 14) independent repair stakeholders agreed and said that independent repair shops do not currently need telematics data for repairs.”

All automakers interviewed said that if the data becomes unavailable through a port, they will continue to make it available regardless of the mechanism used for access, according to the report.

The report also notes that independent shops can get vehicle repair information and tools directly from automakers or from third parties that provide information or tools from multiple automakers.

“While there is no federal law requiring manufacturers to ensure vehicle owners and independent repair shops have access to information, data, and tools needed for vehicle repair, there have been some key relevant state and nationwide industry efforts,” the report states.

GAO noted the following efforts:

    • 2012 Massachusetts Right to Repair Act
    • 2014 MOU
    • 2020 Massachusetts Data Access Law, an extension of the 2012 law
    • 2023 industry commitment by SCRS, the Automotive Service Association (ASA), and Auto Innovators. Several aftermarket industry associations opposed and criticized the agreement, stating that it isn’t enforceable and doesn’t give the aftermarket the same access as OEM dealers to the procedures, tools, and equipment necessary to repair vehicles.
    • 2023 Maine law

“Views varied on the extent to which independent repair shops have access to the necessary information, data, and tools to make vehicle repairs,” the report states. “Most automaker and independent repair stakeholders we interviewed stated that, since 2014, independent repair shops have generally had access to what they need to make repairs. Officials from all eight automakers we interviewed said they provide to independent repair shops, on fair and reasonable conditions, equal access to the information, data, and tools needed for repairs, and will continue to do so.”

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation (Auto Innovators), which was interviewed by GAO, said in a written statement Thursday that, “The report makes clear many of the points about automotive right-to-repair the association and independent repairers have made to policymakers over the years.”

Auto Innovators went on to detail some specific points the report makes, including:

    1. “The independent repair community is thriving. Independent repair shops and companies that support vehicle care consistently earned about 70% of all post-sale, vehicle-related revenues from 2014 to 2023, and total revenues for independent repair shops grew 43% while the number of independent repair shop locations grew from 2014 to 2022.
    2. “The independent repair community overwhelmingly agrees that independent repair shops have access to what they need to make repairs.
    3. “The vast majority of independent repair stakeholders interviewed by GAO said independent repair shops do not currently need telematics data for repairs.
    4. “Confirmed automakers will continue to make repair and diagnostic data available to independent repair shops through the physical port inside the vehicle. (Important point: should data no longer be available that way, they will continue to make the data available through other mechanisms).
    5. “There are potential cybersecurity risks with sharing access to vehicle data – including telematics data. (Cybersecurity risks can include the potential for hackers to exploit vulnerabilities in systems to gain access to vehicle data, including location data, and to control critical vehicle systems such as steering).
    6. “The 2014 Memorandum of Understanding and the 2023 automotive repair data sharing commitment between automakers and independent repairers should be codified through a federal law.”

Eight automakers interviewed by GAO said they will continue to provide equal access to information, data, and tools to independent repair shops, according to the report.

All eight are either a party to or said they support the 2023 commitment. Eight of the 14 independent repair shops and associations GAO interviewed “expressed concerns about lack of enforceability in the 2014 Memorandum and 2023 commitment,” specifically because of their voluntary nature, GAO wrote.

According to GAO’s findings, all four independent repair shops and six of 10 independent repair associations said disparities between dealerships and independent repair shops in telematics access could disadvantage them during:

    • Remote diagnosis: Independent shops without direct telematics access would need to take the vehicle to a dealership, with the owner’s consent, which two independent repairers said “would be an inconvenience for customers that may disadvantage independent repair shops.”
    • Marketing: Direct marketing via telematics could lead more consumers to take their vehicles to dealerships for regular maintenance or repairs, which 10 of the 14 independent repair stakeholders expressed concern that this scenario would disadvantage independent repair shops.
    • Over-the-air (OTA) updates: Concerns were expressed that in the future, independent repairers could lose out on conducting some repairs that OEMs can do OTA. GAO determined dealerships would also likely have the same issue.
    • Cybersecurity: As GAO said it’s cautioned before, “risks can include the potential for hackers to exploit vulnerabilities in systems to gain access to vehicle data, including location data, and to control critical vehicle systems such as steering…hackers could exploit vulnerabilities in a telematics system to compromise multiple vehicles simultaneously…two stakeholders we interviewed with expertise in cybersecurity indicated that it could be possible for automakers to provide secure access to telematic diagnostic and repair data to independent repair shops.”

Ten of the 14 independent shops and associations said the need for recalibration and specialized equipment for vehicles equipped with advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) could also be creating a limitation for technicians if they lack the equipment and training.

Three independent repair shops GAO interviewed cited instances of not having access needed to reprogram vehicle electronics systems after repairs so that those systems will link to replacement parts.

One independent repair shop owner said the shop lacked the experience and training to work on electric vehicles (EVs) but has addressed it with extensive training for 20 technicians at the shop. However, they also noted that “extensive training is necessary as each automaker approaches EV systems differently,” the report states.

GAO added, “Challenges in repairing vehicles with advanced technologies may especially affect the ability of some independent repair shops to be competitive. For example, independent repair shops that do not have the ability or willingness to undertake needed investments and training may not be able to conduct such repair work.”


Featured image credit: LightFieldStudios/iStock

More information

Two organizations petition FTC for standardized ‘right to repair’

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