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Lobbyists Line Up Over 'Right to Repair' Act

Trade groups are battling over state legislation that would require auto manufacturers to share data with independent repairers.

Tony Koles worries his auto repair business might not last long if auto manufacturers don't make it easier for independent shops like his to access information from on-board computers in newer model cars—but auto makers say they need to guard proprietary information and that everything independent shops need is already available online.

Koles, who has owned and operated on Main Street for 43 years, is part of a coalition seeking to force car makers to share with independent shops the same computer data franchise dealers get to repair vehicles, through state legislation known as the Right to Repair Act.

Without the law, Koles said, businesses like his can't afford to compete with dealers.

"It's to the point where you can't service a car without scan tools and access to the computer," Koles said. "We can spend thousands of dollars per year on equipment to access the information, but we can't get all the information."

The bill has been filed in the state House of Representatives for the current session after passing the state Senate last year. Because the bill wasn't signed in the last session, it has to pass through the Senate again, as well as the House, before being placed on Gov. Deval Patrick's desk.

If passed, it would be the first such law in the country, but auto manufacturers are strongly opposed to the legislation, and similar efforts to enact a federal law.

The Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition, which includes more than 1,000 independent repairers and organizations including AAA Southern New England and the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, has been lobbying state legislators in an effort to get the bill passed. 

Meanwhile, the auto manufacturing trade group Association of International Automobile Manufacturers (AIAM) has been lobbying against the bill.

Auto makers have said the legislation is an effort by after-market parts makers to access the manufacturers' intellectual property. An AIAM spokeswoman told the Wall Street Journal that the bill's supporters want not only repair codes, but the design and manufacturing codes.

Joe O'Koniewski, executive vice president of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association, said that shops not being able to obtain the information they need for repairs is a "made-up issue," driven by after-market parts makers.

"We don't have anything against independent repairers—we work with them on a range of issues," O'Koniewski said. "But on this issue we have a disagreement."

"It's very difficult to pass something all the auto manufacturers oppose," said Art Kinsman, a lobbyist for the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition. "They have deep pockets and are willing to fight to the death."

Kinsman said the manufacturers are trying to steer more business to their affiliated dealerships, at the expense of independent shops.

Sen. Katherine Clark, D-Melrose, who represents Melrose Wards 1-5, was still a state representative last year and didn't get a chance to vote on the bill, but signaled she would support it this session.

"We need to craft a bill that will benefit our small businesses," Clark said through a spokeswoman. "I've heard from a lot of small garages in my district that believe this bill will be very helpful for their businesses."

As the two sides bring their arguments to bear on the Legislature, Rep. Paul Brodeur, D-Melrose, said he wants to make sure the consumer is protected.

Brodeur said he is "cautiously favoring" the legislation, but is wary of the intense lobbying effort coming from both sides.

"There are a lot of high-powered hired guns on this," Brodeur said. "Whenever there's this much money going in, you have to be careful of the overblown rhetoric."

Koles said he has personally spoken to state legislators many times about the bill, and he's been "fighting this for 10 to 12 years," at the federal level, where a bill has never made it through Congress.

"It's only a matter of time before this will happen," Koles said.

If the bill passes the Legislature and becomes law, it will likely be challenged by lawsuits from the manufacturers, Brodeur said.

"I think we'll see lawsuits around the issues of commerce," Brodeur said. "Not that you shouldn't pass something if someone is opposed to it, but the law should have merit."

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