Is Right to Repair info plentiful?

Jan. 1, 2020
An EPA environmental specialist says the problem is not the lack of information...it’s what we’re doing with what we have.

Staff Report

The Information Age has brought with it a host of dilemmas; for the aftermarket, one such problem is cutting-edge technology and its attendant diagnostic and repair information for newer vehicles. Many have taken sides in the proposed legislation known as Right to Repair — currently pending in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Some feel OEs share plenty of information and placing the issue in bureaucratic hands would only muddle current efforts. Others say OEs don’t share enough. And yet some feel the real debate is over the cost of this information. Only the manufacturers have all the answers, but one thing’s certain: the debate over this issue still continues at full tilt and probably will for quite some time.

An aspect to Right to Repair worth exploring is the Environmental Protection Agency’s service information access mandate, part of the 1990 Clean Air Act, which is said to provide adequate framework for the sharing of diagnostic information in our industry.

Our sister publication Motor Age had the opportunity to speak with Holly Pugliese, an environmental protection specialist with the EPA’s Office of Transportation and Air Quality, responsible for enforcing the federal government’s emission control program for motor vehicles and non-road engines. Though she has worked in a number of program areas, Pugliese has primary responsibility with the agency’s on-board diagnostic (OBD) and service information regulation.

The EPA’s specific mandate is ensuring that OBD systems can fully monitor emissions, but this mission also entails the aftermarket having a fair shot at fixing the vehicles, says Pugliese, who has been with the EPA for 15 years.

The central solution to the problem of OE diagnostic information for independent repair shops may not be the availability of more information, she says; rather, the answer may lie in what’s being made of all the available information that is out there already.

“In my opinion, one of the primary issues is not the lack of information,” she says. “To me, one of the primary questions is: what is the aftermarket going to do with all the information that they do have? I’m not saying that there isn’t more work that needs to be done improving the accessibility to the information that is currently available. [But] there is a tremendous amount of information out there. So in my view, I think the industry should be putting effort — probably more effort than we are today — making sure that adequate training is available.”

Training that’s needed runs the gamut from basic computer skills to advanced diagnostics, she adds. “I believe we need to be vigilant in making sure the information is available. But again, the overall training issues continue to be a huge challenge.”

Combined effort may be the answer

A volunteer effort brokered by the Automotive Service Association (ASA) to make diagnostic and repair information accessible to independent technicians is under way, but a number of critics say this sort of agreement is not enough. Pugliese says she thinks any legislative answer will be a mixture of the EPA’s legislation combined with volunteer efforts.

“In the past, one or two [OEMs] probably misbehaved, and I think that drives the desire for legislation to some extent,” she offers.

“I think too that one of the challenges is that we are trying to solve a problem, but do we know what problem we are trying to solve? It wasn’t a sudden change in the OE industry, as though the entire industry misbehaved. There have been holdouts. Additional EPA work led to increased cooperation. I still think there is an unprecedented level of cooperation with a number of groups, including the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE).”

Pugliese continues: “So, you know we don’t have a particular position on it, but to the extent the new legislation is passed, the EPA will certainly work with the FTC or whichever agency ends up charged with it so we can all work together to meet the goal of improving access to service information.”

She says she sees the National Automotive Service Task Force (NASTF), a mechanism for these voluntary agreements, as a direct link between the aftermarket and OEs. Whether someone supports legislation or not, NASTF is a forum that brings manufacturers to the table frequently, she adds.

A majority of manufacturers have been doing the right thing for quite some time when it comes to sharing information, says Pugliese, though she admits EPA mandates and the threat of legislation have spurred increased cooperation.

Even when the EPA published its first emission rules in 1995 and considered regulation changes, manufacturers started conceiving the websites used to share this information, says Pugliese.

The specter of legislation is a determining factor in cooperation, she adds, “But I also think that in the very early days, the OBD systems were so new to the manufacturers, and they had spent so much money on those systems, that they were concerned about their own techs being able to utilize the information and work with OBD. And they had even bigger fears about the aftermarket. But I think over time, those fears never came to fruition. It’s obvious that the aftermarket is perfectly capable on the whole of doing these types of repairs. And so a lot of those old arguments from the very early days don’t hold water anymore. And I think that led to part of what you see now. There is no reason on the whole for the OEMs to be concerned about how the aftermarket uses the information, especially OBD information.”

Tangled web of information

If the voluntary agreement ends up being the only means of enforcement in repair and diagnostic information, the EPA cannot mandate what’s shared on websites, but a majority of OEMs are using the same sites for both the dealers and aftermarket, Pugliese says.

“You might come in through a different avenue, and there may be a few pieces of information like warranty rates and labor rates that the aftermarket doesn’t get access to,” she adds. “But for the most part, they’re the same site.”

Pugliese continues: “My understanding is that all the information that the OEMs are required to make available and the information that they have agreed to make available is essentially everything. And that information is brought to the aftermarket on the same server as the dealerships.”

Dealerships may have different access points or links that the aftermarket does not  have, she says. “There is a little bit of perception that they are different websites, but I don’t think that’s true. And we’ve had a couple of complaints that there might be a certain link that says, ‘Dealers Only.’ What’s going on there? What am I not getting? It’s dealer specific information in the sense that this is something the dealership needs from the manufacturer like labor rates, etc.”

As part of the EPA’s emissions requirements, the agency reviews websites, but the EPA also is considering an independent audit to include the aftermarket, she adds.

“We don’t have a lot of details right now because we’re still working out contracting mechanisms and things like that, but there’s no doubt that the EPA will be doing an independent audit in some form, hopefully starting sometime later this year,” says Pugliese. “But it’s going to be a longer-term thing; it’s not something you can just do in a couple of days.”

Another need for improvement could be the uniformity of websites, or how they are set up, she offers. If standards are established for Web layout, users will know they can reliably find certain items in the same place on every site they visit.

“If the aftermarket could give more feedback to the OEMs on which websites seem to be more functional than others, the OEMs will listen to that. Don’t underestimate the fact that the OEMs want shops to use these sites. They have literally invested millions [of dollars] in launching them, trying to meet the mandate and the agreement. They need to know what is and isn’t working. That’s going to be as valuable as anything that comes down with the legislation.”

She adds: “The EPA will try to facilitate that to some extent with their independent audit that we talked about, but I think we should all be looking for ways to give feedback to the OEMs to improve access and fill the gaps. And there are gaps.”

Price issue remains

A problem the Federal Trade Commission recently acknowledged with the proposed Right to Repair legislation is its ambiguity regarding cost of diagnostic and repair information. How much is too much? How does one place a “fair” price tag on vast intellectual property?

A number of independent repair shop owners have disclosed the costs involved with obtaining this information. Some report paying in the thousands just for basic diagnostic information.

“Cost has always been the most complex issue that we have dealt with,” concedes Pugliese. “But from the beginning, EPA has stated in their preambles and very publicly stated that shops have to be willing to purchase the information for it to be considered truly available.”

Because diagnostic and repair information is intellectual property, OEs should be able to charge for this information, she adds. However, the EPA has put in place a framework for reasonable pricing.

“In the 2003 rule, we set in place these guidelines: the short-term, mid-term and long-term. But more importantly, we required the OEs to give us information on why they were pricing the information the way they were,” says Pugliese, who feels OEs would charge more for these guidelines were it not for the EPA groundwork already laid.

For anyone to perform high-end diagnostics, there’s also the investment of tools and training along with the information, she says. “I think it’s going to be increasingly difficult to do high-end diagnostics on anything that comes into your shop. For this reason, I think we are going to see more specialization in various areas. And there are going to be shops that have to make that decision that it’s not worth the investment to do high-end diagnostics on everything.”

The answer to this issue may lie in more communication among aftermarket players and manufacturers, says Pugliese.

“At the end of the day, I think we need to be having much more productive and constructive dialogue about where the true information gaps are and what are the problems we are trying to solve,” she adds. “And regardless of whether you support ASA or [the Alliance of Automotive Service Professionals (AASP)] or both, the aftermarket, I believe, should be voicing its opinion as strongly as possible about where the problems remain. And this information must be very specific. I think that is the only way that we are going to address where the remaining issues are.”

Pugliese concludes her discussion by saying, “I think we are a lot better off than we were 10 years ago. However, there is still more work to do to improve the access, the accessibility of the information that is there and to make sure the shops have what they need in a convenient way to get these vehicles fixed.”

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