112th Congress Goes To Washington, Lobbyists Follow. Will The Right To Repair Act Finally Pass?

January 4, 2011
U.S. Capitol

U.S. Capitol

If you read the news yesterday, you probably saw a recap of the day on Capitol Hill, with lots of attention given to the freshman Representatives. But journalists aren't the only ones keeping an eye on the 112th Congress; lobbyists and advocacy groups are watching, too, hoping that this will be their year to shine. Among them: supporters of the Right to Repair Act.

The Right to Repair Act aims to put independent auto service shops -- from big guns like Jiffy Lube to small mom-and-pops -- on equal footing with dealer garages. Supporters argue that car repair has become so high-tech that only auto manufacturers can afford the equipment needed to analyze and address vehicle problems. As a result, indie shops are forced to refer their clients to dealers, who have access to a full range of diagnostic equipment.

Detractors argue that the Right to Repair Act is unnecessary and that the National Automotive Service Task Force, which was created in 2000 to address such problems, is working just fine. Some also insist that sharing secret information about locks, alarms, and other vehicle security systems would eventually put that information in the wrong hands. 

The Right to Repair Act debuted on Capitol Hill in 2001, and in the intervening 10 years, it hasn't made much progress. How will it go in 2011?

On the one hand, there's been a fairly substantial shift on Capitol Hill, and change can sometimes signal opportunity. That could be true this year, given the Republican majority in the House and the fact that many Republicans still hold grudges against GM and Chrysler for taking bailout dough.

On the other hand, Republicans are generally seen as friends of big business, and when it comes to big business, few are bigger than car companies. The GOP has already been talking to automakers -- both domestic and foreign -- about their wish list for the coming session. The Right to Repair Act probably didn't make the cut.

Our take? Proprietary technology is a necessary evil. Without the protection offered by patents, copyrights, and the like, automakers would have far less incentive to develop new products. (The situation is different when it comes to items like software, which are far cheaper to produce and distribute and often generate their own open-source communities.) However, proprietary technology can also create unfair advantages, even monopolies.

Striking the right balance is tricky, and the tipping point varies from sector to sector. For example, many people believe that it's their constitutional right to repair their own car, but feel differently about their smartphone, computer, or television. Are autos moving in that direction? And what happens further down the road, as EVs become more common and moving parts are reduced to a minimum? We can't answer either question with certainty, but we can guarantee one thing: the times, they are a-changin'.

For additional analysis on the Right to Repair Act, check this article by our own Bengt Halvorson. We've also pasted a recent press release from the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality below.

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Broad Range of Organizations, Motoring Consumers Show Support for Right to Repair Act

Urge 112th Congress to Swiftly Pass Legislation to Protect Consumers, Small Business

BETHESDA, Md., Jan. 3, 2011 -- As the 112th Congress convenes this week, members of Congress have an opportunity to take bipartisan action that would have a positive outcome for every American who owns and operates a car, truck, motorcycle or other motor vehicle.  Passage of the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act would ensure that vehicle owners have a choice of where they bring their vehicle for repairs, ensuring that vehicle repair is affordable and convenient for all Americans, according to the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA).  

"We want to congratulate those who will be taking the oath of office as members of the 112th Congress and urge them to take up the Right to Repair Act immediately to demonstrate their ability to work together on behalf of the American people," said Kathleen Schmatz, president and CEO of AAIA.  "A wide variety of constituencies have come out in support of the Right to Repair Act including those representing the military and their families, senior citizens, motorcycle riders, recyclers and organizations representing consumers and rural communities. Consumers benefit from competition and these groups know that their members are at a disadvantage when neighborhood auto repair shops are denied ready access to non-proprietary service information and tools needed to properly maintain today's highly sophisticated motor vehicles."

State and national consumer and industry organizations representing millions of Americans support passage of the Right to Repair Act including the Automobile Association of America (AAA), American Military Society, National Grange, Automotive Recyclers Association, Consumer Electronics Association, Engine Repower Council, Motorcycle Riders Foundation, RetireSafe and 60 Plus.

"Motoring consumers nationwide are looking to their members of Congress to protect their right to safe, affordable vehicle repair by cosponsoring and voting for the Right to Repair Act," said Ray Pohlman, president of the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality (CARE).  "The enthusiastic grassroots support of Right to Repair continues to gain momentum and sends a strong message to Congress that motoring consumers want this issue heard, cosponsored and passed. Tens of thousands of consumers have sent emails and letters of support to their elected officials requesting passage of Right to Repair and thousands have joined the rapidly growing social media community to join the conversation and follow the legislative developments."

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