By Bill Kirk
NORTH ANDOVER — You can almost hear the roar of professional ring announcer Michael Buffer's voice as he shouts his trademark phrase: "Let's get ready to rumble!"
Except in this case, the rumble has already begun. In fact, it's been going on for years: In one corner are automotive parts retail giants like Autozone, NAPA and Carquest. In the other corner, it's car and truck manufacturers like General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
Lost somewhere in the middle of this multimillion-dollar lobbying match are mom-and-pop car-repair shops, and even some dealerships with small service departments, who stand to gain, or lose, depending on which way the so-called 'Right-to-Repair' bill goes in the state Legislature.
"It's a big guy versus big guy battle," said Dan Gage, communications director for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which opposes the legislation.
Art Kinsman, spokesman for the Right to Repair Coalition, which favors the legislation and is collecting signatures to put a question on this fall's ballot that would implement such a law, agrees.
"The folks who are funding this are the auto parts retailers including NAPA, Autozone and Carquest," he said. "They are the lifeblood of the independent garage. Our fight is with the big car manufacturers."
The bill, at its core, would force carmakers to release all the computer codes needed to do diagnostic testing on increasingly high-tech cars and trucks coming off assembly lines from Detroit to Tokyo.
Carmakers already sell most of those codes to third-party software companies that in turn sell them to repair shops like North Andover Auto Computer and Diagnostics or Merrimack Valley Tire of Haverhill. The auto manufacturers also sell that information to dealerships like Regan Ford and Commonwealth Motors.
The difference is that more information is available to the dealerships than is available to the independent repair shops. And that, say supporters of the legislation, is unfair.
Kinsman says that the intent of the law, and the ballot question, is to force carmakers to release all of the information to whomever wants it whenever it is available.
"Our proposal says that by 2015 there will be a universal interface with access to car manufacturers' information, either in the cloud or on a website," he said. "The goal is to make it so independent shops can fix cars. They get a lot of information, but not always the same information."
Some claim trade secrets will be revealed
But Gage, and others, say there is more to the bill than meets the eye.
They say that there are unintended consequences that could end up forcing car companies to release trade secrets about their parts and tools that could then be used by unscrupulous people to build formerly proprietary parts in China and sell them from the aisles of this country's auto parts retailers at reduced prices.
"They say, 'Oh, we don't want blueprints or diagrams, we just want to know how to fix the cars,'" Gage said. "We say, 'If you subscribe to an auto manufacturer's website, you can get all that information.'"
The bill approved by the Senate earlier this month and which is now before the House of Representatives, however, goes too far in forcing carmakers to reveal too much information, he said.
"Ford, GM and Chrysler file 1,500 patent applications a year," he said. "Why should they have to turn that over? Our legal team says we are vulnerable for losing our intellectual property due to possible legal action."
But Kinsman says that's a red herring that's covered in the legislation and by language in the ballot question.
"The assumption is that this is about stealing trade secrets and making parts," he said. "But the bill says you can't do that and the wording has been approved by the attorney general. It goes out of its way to protect that."
If the Legislature fails to pass a bill by the end of the legislative session, then the Right to Repair Coalition has vowed to move forward with its initiative petition to put a binding question on the ballot that would force the issue.
"To prevent us from going forward, there would need to be a bill on the governor's desk by July 3," Kinsman said. "We just want to make sure consumers have a choice of where to get their cars fixed."
But Gage said that if the legislation fails and that ballot question passes, there may be another unintended consequence as carmakers may be forced to shut down access to all computer codes until the matter is settled.
"If the ballot measure passes, it would be litigated," he said. "And if it's litigated, will the flow of information stop? Will it be chaos in the repair community if it passes? It's a tough situation."
He noted that even car repair shops are divided over the issue.
"Independent shops are all over the map on this," he said.
Steve LeBlanc, owner of Merrimack Valley Tire, agrees there are "a lot of ins and outs" to the debate.
He said he already subscribes to a service that enables him to get the codes he needs to diagnose most problems.
"You've got to sign up for a yearly subscription, or a daily subscription, and there are different options," he said. "I'm not as concerned with it. We're up to date on most of the stuff."
Mark Valentino, owner of North Andover Auto Computer & Diagnostics, said he buys his diagnostic software from Snap-On Motors. Four years ago, he spent $8,000 for a Snap-On upgrade, which came with most of the diagnostics he needed.
But, he said, when a 1996 Ford box truck came through the door with a misfiring cylinder, he couldn't find the misfire in the diagnostic read-out, despite hours of work trying to find it.
"That's because Ford didn't release it," he said. "Eventually I upgraded and Ford finally decided to release it."
More common, he said, are messages that will say: "Unidentified code, see manufacturer," creating frustration for mechanics and more money for customers.
Charlie Daher, owner of Commonwealth Motors in Lawrence, said he doesn't even have access to all the information from the car manufacturers he deals with unless he upgrades his equipment and trains his staff.
"Between training and equipment we spend a couple-hundred thousand dollars a year," he said. "It would be economically unfeasible for small repair shops to do that."
And he sides with carmakers who want to preserve their proprietary information.
"The manufacturers want to protect their interests," he said. "On the other side independent repair shops see it as an opportunity. But there are a lot of extenuating circumstances."
It's those extenuating circumstances that lawmakers are trying hard to rectify as they work to cobble together a compromise.
Rep. Garrett Bradley, a Hingham Democrat and the sponsor of legislation in the House, said he believed that action in the House would be contingent on getting all sides to reach an agreement on the contents of the bill.
Though he said some manufacturers had made progress toward a compromise with House and Senate negotiators, Bradley said that General Motors was the last "holdout" to a deal. "If they don't like that, wait till they see the ballot question," Bradley said, referencing differences between the competing bills and the language of the ballot question.
"From our point of view we have continued to work toward a compromise bill and will do that as long as we're in session. If they won't step forward and work with us, they leave us no choice but to go to the ballot," Bradley told the Statehouse News Service.
Should the question go to the ballot, Bradley predicted that supporters of improving access to repair information for independent auto body shops would have an easier time framing their argument for voters.
Gov. Deval Patrick has said he would sign right-to-repair legislation.
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Material from the Statehouse News Service was used in this report.