A Fix for Car Fixers?

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Computers are in charge of almost every aspect of your vehicle these days, from telling the transmission when to shift to controlling the door locks. When something goes wrong, as it inevitably will, who has the specialized, sometimes proprietary, knowledge and tools to fix the problem? The dealer who sold you the car, of course. But as a 2009 Consumer Reports survey found, motorists aren’t always satisfied with the service they get at dealers. They want choices. Independent garages want the business. Competition benefits everyone.

Independents, though, can’t fix cars unless they have the same access to tools and information as franchised dealers. A broad coalition of independent garages, auto-parts stores and aftermarket manufacturers has been pushing for federal legislation that would level the field, and after a decade’s effort they scored their first legislative victory in August with Massachusetts’ Right to Repair Law, mandating that dealers who sell cars participate in a database to make all the information and tools available, at the same price, to everyone. The coalition is looking to take Right to Repair national with House Bill 1449, but so far advocates have been stymied by opposition from dealers and manufacturers.

The Massachusetts law improves the prospects for a federal statute, says Roy Littlefield, executive vice president of the Tire Industry Association in Maryland, which supports Right to Repair. But even if the law never goes national, he says, once full access is required in one state it will spread to others.

The Automotive Service Association, a trade group that advocates for professional repair standards, acknowledges the need for fair competition between independents and dealers. That’s why there are already websites and subscription services where the independents can access almost all the repair information they need. “What we have found is that the information is available, so we are not supportive of a federal law,” says the ASA’s Angie Wilson.

Meanwhile, you just want that annoying light on the dashboard taken care of. Soon, it might be easier to get it fixed.