The long road on Beacon Hill for the “Right to Repair” bill that would give independent garages access to repair codes seems to be nearing its end. But it’s still too early to know if this vehicle crosses the finish line or crashes and burns.
The long road on Beacon Hill for the “Right to Repair” bill seems to be nearing its end. But it’s still too early to know if this vehicle crosses the finish line or crashes and burns.
You would think that all independent garage owners would champion a bill that could give them access to the same repair data that’s provided to franchise dealerships.
But plenty of lawmakers were taken by surprise when one advocacy group, the New England Service Station & Automotive Repair Association, ardently opposed the bill last week. It wouldn’t have been such a shock, except this group was once one of the bill’s biggest supporters. Adding to the confusion: A different group of car repairers was disappointed to see that their bill wasn’t let out of committee.
At issue is the right for independent garage owners to buy access to computer codes that will help them fix the increasingly complex cars that customers bring to them. Many shop owners say key bits of data are unfairly walled off from them, occasionally requiring consumers to go to new car dealerships where repairs can be more expensive.
The debate is being watched nationally, as no state has yet adopted a “right to repair” bill. Major auto parts suppliers are lined up in support while the big auto manufacturers remain opposed; the two sides pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into lobbying efforts on Beacon Hill last year alone.
Rep. Garrett Bradley, a Hingham lawmaker leading this charge on Beacon Hill, says he’s concerned about the local shops in his district and their customers. He says he got involved after hearing numerous stories from local mechanics about how tough it can be to access all the repair codes that they need.
The Legislature’s consumer protection committee endorsed the bill earlier this month, setting it up for a full vote in the Senate, possibly within the next few weeks. Bradley says he remains hopeful it can become law before formal sessions end on July 31 – despite newfound opposition from the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and NESSARA.
It’s not entirely clear what prompted the New England service station association’s about-face. NESSARA, which represents a mix of gas station owners and repair shops in the state, was initially a vocal proponent. Then it went into neutral. And then it joined forces with the auto manufacturers.
Matthew LeLacheur, NESSARA’s executive director, says his group’s board eventually decided that a legislative solution isn’t the answer. He says board members received legal counsel advising that this bill could create a precedent that might limit access to the data if the legislation is successfully challenged in court.
But Stan Morin, a NESSARA member and vocal supporter of the Right to Repair bill, is skeptical. He says the membership was never polled to learn where they stand. Morin, the general manager at New England Tire in Attleboro, doubts that the majority of the members actually agrees with the stance taken by the group’s leadership.
Art Kinsman, a spokesman for the coalition that’s pushing the bill, says he’s heard from many NESSARA members who support the bill. But NESSARA itself represents just a small piece of the state’s fractured repair shop industry.
LeLacheur says NESSARA has about 400 member facilities in the state, and most are in the repair business in some way.
But Kinsman says NESSARA is hardly representative of the full industry: Kinsman says there are more than 5,000 auto repair shops in Massachusetts, and plenty of their owners belong to groups that support the Right to Repair bill.
Then there’s the group of mechanics that are pushing a separate bill – dubbed “Right to Repair Plus” – sponsored by Rep. James O’Day of West Boylston. The Alliance of Automotive Service Providers’ bill would guarantee that motorists who own or lease a vehicle have the rights to nearly all computer data within that car.
Bill Cahill, owner of B.C. Auto Repair in Randolph and vice president of the local AASP chapter, had originally supported the main Right to Repair legislation. But he says it’s more important for motorists and mechanics to pass O’Day’s legislation, especially considering the increasing amount of computer data flowing through cars these days.
O’Day’s legislation didn’t make it out of committee, at least not yet. Rep. Ted Speliotis, a lawmaker from Danvers and the committee’s House chairman, says the wording was considered too far-reaching to pass right now. Speliotis and his co-chairman, Sen. Michael Morrissey of Quincy, haven’t ruled out consideration of the bill at a later date.
Speliotis says he spent months gathering information before making a decision on the Right to Repair issue. He says he recognizes that independent mechanics don’t face these roadblocks every day. But he says he heard enough anecdotal stories of problems that he figured the bill could help widen the options for his constituents – and that there wouldn’t be any harm in endorsing the bill.
After all, the committee included language in the bill aimed at preventing the release of any trade secrets. That section is an attempt to address concerns raised by the auto manufacturers, who argue that the aftermarket parts companies simply want to use the legislation to get access to patented information and reverse engineer auto parts.
The inclusion of that clause didn’t placate the auto manufacturers, however. Their representatives continue to lobby fiercely against the bill, and point to NESSARA’s opinion change as a reason why the bill is unnecessary.
So now the issue appears headed to the Senate floor for a debate. Morrissey says the bill is being vetted to clear up technical language and to ensure it wouldn’t result in an illegal restraint of commerce. Morrissey supports the measure and hopes it will be ready for a Senate vote in March.
Speliotis says he figured the bill was on a fast track to success a week ago. Now, with the opposition of NESSARA and the AFL-CIO made public, Speliotis says he’s not so sure.
Lawmakers know the concerns of big auto manufacturers and national parts distributors should take a back seat to the concerns of the state’s locally-owned auto shops. Unfortunately, figuring out where all the state’s mechanics stand on this issue has been much more difficult than the legislators anticipated.
Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.massmarketblog.com.