Software deal lacks teeth: repair shops

Automakers have agreed to allow independent garages access to the key software and training needed to repair newer-model cars, but the auto-repair industry says the voluntary agreement has no teeth.

TORONTO — Automakers have agreed to allow independent garages access to the key software and training needed to repair newer-model cars, but the auto-repair industry says the voluntary agreement has no teeth.

Federal Industry Minister Tony Clement said Tuesday the agreement over what is called the right to repair will cover all Canadian auto manufacturers and distributors and will make for more competition and lower repair bills for consumers.

“The agreement will make information and tools available to independent repair shops . . . for the repair of all vehicles,” Clement said.

“Often, fixing vehicles today is more about the car’s computer system than it’s about nuts and bolts and so, in order to repair and service newer vehicles, there are highly specialized and specific tools that require technical training and diagnostic information,” he added.

Proponents of the agreement say it gives consumers the choice to get their vehicles repaired wherever they want once their warranty has expired, but the independent auto-repair industry says there will be no guarantees unless it’s enshrined in legislation.

The so-called aftermarket shops questioned why the minister pushed ahead with a voluntary agreement when a private-member’s bill on the same issue is currently working its way through Parliament.

The Automotive Industries Association of Canada, which bills itself as the largest aftermarket trade association in the country and says it was left out of the consultations, said the voluntary agreement allows carmakers to opt out of sharing their technology with independent repair shops.

Marc Brazeau, president of the association, added the system lacks a dispute-resolution mechanism.

“Ultimately this agreement needs to have some checks and balances in order to ensure that people comply, and that’s totally lacking,” Brazeau said. “The car companies are not bound by the agreement, there is no arbitration process that’s established within this agreement, and really the agreement prohibits the aftermarket from claiming to be competent and able to repair these vehicles.”

NDP MP Brian Masse, who introduced the private-member’s bill, accused Clement of taking “short cuts” rather than allowing the issue to work its way through the legislative process.

Parliament voted 247 to 18 in May in favour of sending Masse’s bill to committee. It’s expected to be reviewed within the next couple of weeks.

“My bill will create a rules-based system that, if there’s a dispute, it will go through the Competition Bureau so all sides have to play fair and there would be a remedy if the law is not upheld,” Masse said.

Matthew Wilson, director of industry and consumer affairs for the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, which represents the big carmakers and was part of the voluntary agreement, said the auto industry has always complied with voluntary environmental and safety agreements in the past and there’s no reason to think the right-to-repair agreement will be any different.

“We do have a firm commitment from all those companies that they’re going to participate in the voluntary agreement, and they didn’t put in all of this time and effort to back out in the next couple of months,” Wilson said. “They’re in it for the long haul and they believe in the voluntary process.”

He added that a private-member’s bill can take a couple of years to work its way through the parliamentary process, if it’s passed at all, whereas the voluntary agreement announced Tuesday will be implemented by next May.

In addition, Wilson said voluntary agreements can be amended easily and quickly as the industry changes, whereas changes to legislation can be “onerous.”

“This allows us to do things quicker and in a much more flexible fashion,” he said.

Clement said the agreement is a compromise that will protect car makers’ secrets, while giving independent repair shops what they need to do their jobs.

“It will continue to protect the intellectual property rights of car companies while addressing implementation issues and technical challenges,” he said.

The voluntary system is fashioned after a similar agreement in the U.S., although Masse said the American policy is backed by law through the Clean Air Act.

The agreement was negotiated and signed by the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers of Canada and the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers’ Association, as well as the National Automotive Trades Association.