Americans have a love/hate relationship with
their motor vehicles. We love the freedom and mobility the automobile
gives us. We love the feel of a good car on the open highway and
how it handles on a challenging stretch of road. And we love the
statement that a car makes about who we are and what we want.
On the other hand, we hate the traffic jams,
the rude, aggressive drivers, the emissions and safety inspections
and the time and expense of keeping our vehicles in good working
In fact, nothing disrupts my day quite like
having to take my car in for service. Even though I am usually
without the car for less than a day, the inconvenience of changing
my daily routine and the constraints which being "vehicleless"
puts on my lifestyle and self-image (such as it is) make servicing
my car a seldom anticipated event. And I’m sure it’s the same
for most car owners.
But I can deal with this disruption without
too much difficulty if the service or repair is done correctly
(translation: I don’t have to make a return trip). Nothing bothers
me so much as having to make two (or more) trips to get one problem
However, I believe the day may soon come when
return trips will become standard, and independent repair facilities
will lose business because they are either unable to repair the
car the first time (or even the second or third time), or to provide
parts which seem to work correctly. The reason for this is the
computerization of today’s vehicles.
As more and more parts are being designed to
be controlled by the vehicle’s computer (or even to employ a computer
chip in the part itself), much of the diagnosis and service of
problems with these parts will depend upon accessing computer
information. Therefore, control of access to vehicle computers,
the information contained in them, and other information required
to use them, will mean the difference between a successful or
Moreover, access to such information will also
determine who can create or rebuild a part which does not trigger
an error code in the computer and alert the driver to a possible
malfunction. And, of course, it is the manufacturer of the vehicle
who holds the key to the computer.
Consequently, the manufacturer may be able
to control if and to what extent information gets to its competitors,
i.e., the independent parts providers, service facilities and
rebuilders, unless access can be assured. Such access may depend
upon resolving copyright and other intellectual property issues,
and the ultimate outcome as yet remains unclear.
In one area, however, the battle has already
been joined. When Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments
in 1990, it directed that new vehicles have on-board diagnostics
(OBD) systems to alert the driver to the need for emissions related
repairs, and to store information to help the service technician
diagnose the repair. However, Congress also realized that it was
creating a governmentally mandated lock which could be used to
prevent access to key parts and service information, and was giving
the key to that lock to only one of a group of competitors, i.e.,
the vehicle manufacturers.
It, therefore, also mandated that access to
the OBD information had to be available to all who needed it.
It mandated that any service information necessary to repair emissions
related parts had to be made available to independent technicians
on the same basis that the OEs made it available to their own
dealers. By doing so, Congress hoped to leave the balance of competition
While it appeared that Congress had kept the
playing field level, at least for emissions related parts, such
was far from the truth. Convinced by the vehicle manufacturers
of the rampant danger to the environment which could occur if
independent technicians could "tamper" with the computer
system, and bowing to the manufacturers’ claims of proprietary
rights to some information, EPA placed severe restrictions on
the information which ultimately the manufacturers had to provide
to the independent parts and service suppliers. Thus, the full
access required by the act was thwarted.
Presently, much of the service information
which was to be provided is either unavailable, available but
not easily found, or available in a form which cannot be used
by independents. Some vehicle manufacturers are just refusing
to make certain information available, despite regulatory requirements
to do so.
All information was to be accessed through
the Fed World website, but this system has proven unworkable.
Some manufacturers make the information available, but make it
so difficult to find that it is, in fact, unreachable.
Moreover, the generic diagnostic tools promised
to the aftermarket which could access the computer memory either
don’t access all the information necessary or work at real time
rates substantially slower than the OE’s specially designed tools.
Finally, much of the service information which
is readily available, such as diagnostic trees, reference certain
proprietary information of the manufacturer, or require use of
the OE’s diagnostic tools, neither of which are available to the
aftermarket. Thus, that service information is worthless.
On the parts and parts/repair side, the problem
is even worse. Parts can be made and rebuilt to work properly
from a performance and emissions perspective; the aftermarket
has been doing that for years. However, emissions related parts
must also not make the service light on the dashboard illuminate
when they are used, and that is where the problem arises.
Each vehicle manufacturer has programmed into
its on-board computers certain specifications or parameters as
to how each emissions related part should work under various conditions
and in coordination with other parts. If the parts manufacturer
or rebuilder does not know these "expectations"(which
may or may not be directly related to emissions or performance),
even though his part may work properly, it may cause the light
to go on, either initially or after some deterioration of the
part during use.
When that happens, the vehicle owner is going
to believe there is a problem, return his car to the shop, and
most importantly, wonder why the shop couldn’t fix the problem
the first time. If the shop owner can’t get the light to extinguish,
or has to send the vehicle to the dealer to have the computer
reprogrammed, or if the vehicle owner is forced to return more
than once for repairs, the vehicle owner is going to become frustrated
with the independent shop and forsake it for the dealer. Because
the decision on what "expectations" a part must meet
is solely within the discretion of the vehicle manufacturer, it
is not hard to see the potential for abuse in this situation.
To avoid these problems, the motor vehicle
aftermarket since 1990 has diligently worked at trying to get
the OBD access it needs and that Congress authorized. The aftermarket
tried to convince EPA that full access to all information in the
OBD system should be allowed. However, EPA capitulated to the
vehicle manufacturers and imposed severe and unnecessary restrictions
on such access.
The aftermarket met with the car companies
to see if some method could be developed to make information available
to the industry while the concerns about tampering and protection
of proprietary information were met. The car companies didn’t
want to discuss it.
The aftermarket sued EPA and California to
force them to withdraw their anti-tampering rules. But the Court
said that it would not interfere with EPA’s discretion in reaching
a decision on access and denied the suits. These efforts, while
obtaining some additional concessions from EPA and vehicle manufacturers,
have not achieved the full access which is necessary, either for
parts or service. Therefore, other avenues are being pursued.
In one effort, the aftermarket is meeting with
the senators and staff of the Senate Environment Committee to
educate them on the problem. So far we have received a favorable
reception. The immediate goal is to have the committee hold a
hearing on our concerns and ultimately either to persuade EPA
to change its decision restricting access or to motivate Congress
to amend the law to make our right to access unequivocal.
The aftermarket has also initiated a national
lobbying and grassroots campaign on the OBD issue focused initially
on California. Labeled the "Aftermarket for Consumer Choice
(ACC),"this effort is designed to raise the level of knowledge
of this issue among aftermarket companies, and the public in general,
and to change the perception among the legislators in Washington
D.C., Sacramento and elsewhere. Specific public relations efforts
are now being planned in California to influence that state to
change its offending anti-tampering rules.
Soon, the activities of ACC will become more
widespread. Look for them and support them with your time and
money, if possible. Otherwise, the aftermarket may be swamped
by a growing number of drivers unwilling to bring their cars back
to independent garages for repeated service of the same problem.