TSBs: Don't Look to the NHTSA For Help Repairing Your Car

April 4, 2011

Before you take your vehicle in for a repair, you may want to know if any technical service bulletins (TSB) cover the problem--but where can you find them for your pre-service research?

TSBs are vehicle and model specific notices of repair issues that the manufacturer sends to dealers. The notices contain information that will facilitate the repair, as well. Checking for an existing TSB can be one of the initial steps of an auto technician's repair process, right after the road test and a physical check of the owner's complaint. So if the check engine light of your 2009 Hyundai Tucson is coming on and the transmission seems like it is staying in one gear, the TSB will advise the technician look for a certain diagnostic trouble code to confirm that the described problem exists in your car.

For consumers, TSBs can be something of a mystery, though. Currently the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) only publishes summaries of TSBs at its web site.

The information available in NHTSA summaries stops there, but the actual TSB describes the repair procedure. The question whether the public should have access to the entire TSB was raised in a recent New York Times article. Some car manufacturers are insisting that the information is proprietary, while others including BMW, Chrysler, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Subaru and Volvo are telling NHTSA to help itself to the information.

According to the Times, some car makers have warned that the information is copyrighted, while Ford expressed concern about car owners using the information to fix the cars themselves when professional expertise is required.

For the non-dealer automotive community, the information is available through information gathering and distribution companies like Alldata which sells subscriptions to access their data. That company also has a DIY product that makes "diagnostic and repair procedures for known issues" available to car owners for a price.

The consumer advocacy group, Center for Auto Safety (CAS) has taken issue with the NHTSA's policy of not publishing bulletins in their entirety. Their position is that the agency is leaning toward the needs of the industry to the detriment of consumers. At times the car makers make free repairs available or set deadlines for when a certain fix must be resolved, which is information that may not show up in the NHTSA summary.

This debate runs parallel to the current campaign by independent auto repair facilities to obtain repair information from the car companies. This effort has taken the form of Right To Repair legislation introduced at the federal and state levels.

As technology is bred into vehicles, information about the maintenance and repair of the advanced systems is increasingly being viewed as an asset worth going to the mat over. The question that needs to be answered is whether when consumers buy a vehicle they then own all the repair information that goes with it? Or is that information the sole domain of its creators for perpetuity?

[New York Times]
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