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Automakers to give diagnostics data to repair shops

| Saturday, Sept. 28, 2002

WASHINGTON — Automakers agreed this week to give independent repair shops their closely guarded codes used to diagnose troubles with today's high-tech vehicles so the shops can make the same repairs as franchise dealerships.

The fault or diagnostic codes, which appear on a handheld computer that the mechanic attaches to the vehicle to designate the source of trouble, were long withheld from independent shops because automakers said they feared the information would be misused by unscrupulous mechanics.

For instance, the anti-theft system code could be used to break into similar vehicle models and the air bag system code could be used to secretly install a fake air bag and sell the real one to another customer.

Some automakers felt more comfortable giving the information to their dealerships, which must keep the data confidential under franchise contracts. That often meant higher costs to consumers, since dealer labor rates tend to run $10 to $20 per hour higher than independent shops, according to AAA.

The Automotive Service Association, which represents 13,000 independent repair shops, said 15 percent of repairs could not be performed because of unavailable codes, resulting in an annual loss of $18 billion to the industry.

"This deal should eliminate that loss," said Bob Redding, the association's lobbyist. He said repairs should be quicker and less expensive since independent mechanics will not have to send vehicles to the dealer for those services.

Rick Weiss, of Norm Weiss Auto on West Liberty Avenue, said the change won't have an immediate impact on his business, as most of the cars he works on are 5 years old and older. He also said he was waiting to see what impact changes in Pennsylvania's emissions testing law will have on his equipment budget before investing in any new diagnostic equipment.

"Some of the bigger guys will get into it, and I'll get into it a few years down the road," Weiss said. "But for now, for the average small guy at the end of the street, it's not going to make too much of a difference."

Russ Bloedel Sr., who owns Russ Bloedel's Auto Repair in Upper St. Clair, said his independently owned repair shop has always kept up with new technologies. With auto dealers now releasing the codes, smaller repair shops will need to invest in the equipment to make the electronic diagnostic codes to remain competitive. The release of the new codes, he said, will allow his own employees to be trained on how to program the diagnostic computer systems.

"The biggest factor that has been holding some of these garages back is that some of these electronic devices get very expensive. We've been doing pretty decent on that because we keep upgrading," Bloedel said. "If they want to keep up on the product, they're going to have to do it. Now, what we find, is a lot of the small repair shops are sending them to us or sending them back to the dealer."

Under the agreement signed by the Automotive Service Association, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, the automakers agree to make the service information available on the Internet by Aug. 31 at a "reasonable price." It will be available to all professional mechanics as well as amateurs working out of their garages at home, said Charlie Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

The deal comes after Congress held a hearing on the issue this summer and threatened to force automakers to share the codes with car owners and independent mechanics.

"This deal will protect the viability of independent service stations and repair shops and ensure that consumers will continue to have a choice of automotive service providers," said Sen. Paul Wellstone, a Democrat from Minnesota, who introduced a bill in the Senate aimed at prying open access to the codes.

Automakers were concerned the legislation would require them to turn over the calibration codes that could be used by the aftermarket parts industry to copy their vehicle parts, in addition to the fault codes. Territo said the manufacturers were not trying to give dealers an unfair advantage.

"I think everyone realizes that a lot of the automotive repairs are done by the aftermarket industry," he said. "It's in our interest to make sure our customers can get their vehicles repaired easily."

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