Are drivers losing the ability to decide where to get their cars fixed? That’s what proponents of right to repair legislation believe. They say automakers are making it increasingly difficult for independent repair shops to access the vehicle data they need to do their jobs, forcing drivers to rely solely on dealer-owned repair shops. This could raise the cost of repairing and insuring cars.
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How losing your right to repair could cost you
Right to repair laws, including the Right to Equitable and Professional Auto Industry Repair (REPAIR) Act making its way through the House of Representatives, aim to address design decisions that make it harder for car owners to go to independent repair shops and easier to get repairs at a dealership.
Until recently, people could access most of the information they needed to repair a vehicle through a standard on-board diagnostic port, meaning nearly any mechanic could repair any car.
“When every car maker has its own telematics system and portal, subject to its own terms for subscription or access, that imposes real costs on independent shops that work on lots of different makes of vehicles,” says Aaron Perzanowski, professor of law at the University of Michigan and author “The Right to Repair: Reclaiming the Things We Own.” “That wasn’t true under the standardized (on-board diagnostic) system.”
The result is that many independent shops can no longer access a car’s telematics system, and therefore cannot diagnose and repair them. But dealerships can.
“The costs for consumers on average are higher at dealerships than they are at independent providers,” Perzanowski says.
Perzanowski cited a study in Massachusetts that found the repair costs for vehicles is 36% higher at dealerships than at independent repair shops on average.  That doesn’t mean every repair is cheaper at independent shop, but if repairs are more expensive overall, car insurance companies, who often front these costs, will pass them to drivers in the form of higher premiums.
“From an insurance perspective, the cost of insurance is driven in part by what it costs to repair vehicles,” says Robert Passmore, vice president of personal lines for the American Property Casualty Insurance Association.
What does the REPAIR Act do?
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, would ban motor vehicle manufacturers from withholding data, critical repair information, and tools from owners or independent repair shops.
“Without Right to Repair laws, the cost to consumers can be quantified in increased dollars spent and lost time,” says Tom Tucker, senior director of state affairs for the Auto Care Association.
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group representing automakers, says the bill is unnecessary because of a 2013 memorandum of understanding that “remains in place today and is working.” (In 2013, after Massachusetts passed a right to repair law, car companies signed up for a nationwide, but voluntary, memorandum of understanding saying that they would provide consumers and independent repair shops with the same tools and repair information they give to their dealers.) But automakers like Tesla aren’t part of the agreement, and “the repair ecosystem has changed” in the decade since that deal was made, Perzanowski says. While the memorandum requires car makers to provide the same diagnosis and repair information to dealers and independent repair shops, doing so with telematics is a barrier.
In a conflict between big government and big manufacturers, there’s not much individual drivers can do to avoid rising repair costs.
“You can buy an old car that doesn’t have a computer in it, and learn how to repair it yourself,” Perzanowski says. But that’s not a realistic option for most people.
“Short of that, what people need to do is read up on this issue, learn about this issue,” he says, “and if they find these arguments convincing or compelling, to reach out and talk to their congressional representatives and talk to their state legislators.”
Image: Cassandra Kosmayer / Getty