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Is Right to Repair hurting the image of independent shops?

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Recent legislation in Massachusetts has rekindled the debate over what lawmakers call the Right to Repair. A bill under this name passed through the Massachusetts Legislature July 31.

“The issue is very simple: It’s simply about getting information,” says Art Kinsman, the spokesman for the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition. “People pay a lot of money for their cars and they ought to be able to get it fixed where they want.”

Essentially, the bill passed in Massachusetts would require all vehicle manufacturers wishing to sell their products in the state to provide “all repair and diagnostic information in the same form” as they do to their own dealers—and at a fair price—for independent repairers, car owners and other competing dealerships, Kinsman says. The legislation also calls for the information to be converted to a website or cloud system by 2018, one that can be easily accessed by any subscriber through a J2534 scanner or its eventual successor.

This marks the first piece of legislation to pass in any state. Other states, such as Oregon, New York and Wisconsin, have failed in recent years to pass similar bills.

Massachusetts was the only state pursuing a Right to Repair bill in 2012, but the effects of the highly publicized bill have been felt around the country. And some independent auto repair shop owners are concerned over what the bill says about their own business.

“I think when you have people saying we can’t fix cars because we don’t have information, that’s a problem,” says Donny Seyfer, a Wheat Ridge, Colo., shop owner and board member of the Automotive Service Association (ASA). “I have no problems whatsoever in fixing cars or finding information, and it’s a huge concern to hear people saying they do.”

The fear, Seyfer says, is that consumers will get the wrong impression—and that they will take their cars back to the dealers for work.

Kinsman says the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition spoke with more than 800 independent shops when drafting the bill, and he feels there is an information gap.

“A lot of these [technicians] are very talented, and they may often times solve the problem, but it may take them three times longer than it should because they don’t have the same schematics and information that a dealer gets,” Kinsman says. “ … I’m sure there are often times they can make it work and get it fixed, but why should they have to go through the extra hours and work when they don’t have to?”

Diane Larson, owner of Larson’s Service Inc. in Peabody, Mass., has watched the events unfold in her state. Having seen other shops with “Support Right to Repair” signs in their windows, she feels they might as well be telling their customers to go elsewhere.

“I’m all for having the right to repair; I just think we already have it,” says Larson, who serves on the committee for ASA’s mechanical division. “I really feel that the information is out there, and it’s education and training that we need.”

Larson says that, like most shops, the majority of her customers have been with her for less than 10 years.

She says her shop purchases the tools, training and information it needs to do repairs. If it did have a problem it would turn to the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF), which was created to help bridge any perceived gaps in information for shop owners.

Seyfer, who serves on a committee that views the NASTF requests, says the low numbers are both a reflection of how rare lack of information is and how shop owners are worried about admitting they have problems.

It’s this worry that has many wondering about the ramifications of Right to Repair on independent shops’ customer bases. Kinsman says it’s definitely not the intention of the coalition to imply independent shops are incompetent in any way; the bill is aimed to help them and consumers.

Yet, some are concerned that between now and when the bill goes into effect (2018), customers may shift back to dealer shops—and vehicle owners around the country may start to question the lack of such legislation in their own states.

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