Daniel Robertson lives in the tiny Aroostook County town of Woodland — 180 miles from the nearest Subaru dealership in Bangor.
Last winter, after his daughter crashed her 2009 Impreza, an auto body shop in Presque Isle patched the car back together. But even after the repair, the car’s “low tire pressure” light remained on because the shop was unable to reboot the car’s computer after one of its tires was replaced. Subaru wouldn’t give the shop the computer codes for the low-tire-pressure sensor, Robertson said.
So Robertson and his daughter had to make the six-hour round trip to the Subaru dealer in Bangor to get the light turned off.
“It ruined the day,” said Robertson, who works as a sheriff’s deputy. “No one was able to put out that light because it’s a Subaru secret. It’s not just Subaru. They all do it.”
Because of that incident, an Aroostook County lawmaker, state Rep. Bernard Ayotte, R-Caswell, has submitted a bill modeled on a new Massachusetts law known as the “Right to Repair Act.”
Approved by Bay State voters in November, the law requires car manufacturers to provide access to all repair and diagnostic information and tools at a fair price. Moreover, the law requires automakers to give mechanics access to each manufacturer’s diagnostic and repair information using a single interface tool, also known as a “scanner” or “code reader.”
Automakers and car dealers say the Massachusetts law is unworkable because a universal interface would require an agreement with all the world’s automakers, something that won’t be feasible for several years. Meanwhile, independent garages can already purchase scanners — at several thousand dollars each — and they can purchase the same software the dealers have, they say.
“Nothing is secret,” said Jack Quirk, whose family owns several car dealerships in the state, including Quirk Subaru in Bangor.
Ayotte has yet to provide any language for his bill, L.R. 1216, “An Act To Provide Vehicle Owners and Repair Facilities Access to Vehicle Diagnostic and Repair Information,” which he submitted on Robertson’s behalf. He said the bill would save rural Maine residents time and money by letting them get their cars repaired at local garages.
Roberston said he got the idea for the legislation after his son, who lives in Boston, told him about the Massachusetts law.
Many independent garages are expected to support the bill. Dennis Anderson, owner of Anderson’s Auto Repair in New Sweden, said automobile manufacturers and car dealerships won’t provide diagnostic codes for newer motor vehicles sold after 2008.
“We are forced to stay out of the loop,” he said. “They’ve got a monopoly on the market.”
Automobile manufacturers are getting better at sharing information, but it’s still difficult for mechanics to acquire scan codes for many ignition and security systems, particularly for European models and General Motors cars, said Bob Burns, a technician at 3G’s Tire & Auto Service in Portland.
Consumers have no choice but to have their cars serviced at dealerships, which charge more, Burns said.
“That hurts us, and it hurts our customers in the long run because they end up having to pay more money,” he said.
In Massachusetts, the coalition that supported the Right to Repair Act included independent garages, automotive aftermarket repair shops and the tire industries. Auto manufacturers led the opposition. Dealerships also opposed the measure.
Automakers would have to re-engineer their vehicles’ computer systems to allow for a universal interface, said Daniel Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents most of the world’s automakers.
Rather than spend that money, some automakers will probably decide to stop selling their cars in Massachusetts, he said.
Both sides have been arguing over the issue at the national level for years. Last July, they reached a compromise that was expected to serve as the basis for a national agreement. In the compromise, automakers won’t have to develop a universal interface for several years.
However, before the Massachusetts Legislature passed the measure in the last day of the session that summer, a more stringent measure had already been placed on the state ballot. Its subsequent approval by voters in November resulted in two state laws now in conflict, Gage said.
“With two laws on the books, there is complete confusion in the industry,” he said.
Gage said the dispute in Massachusetts will probably play out in the courts. He hopes the Maine Legislature will stay out of the fray and wait until the issue is resolved in Massachusetts before trying to enact a law of its own.
Gage said the root of the problem lies with the sophisticated computer systems in newer cars. Many repair shops struggle to keep up with the ever-changing technology. Mechanics use scanning tools to capture data from a car’s on-board computer system and then transfer the data to computers, but manufacturers use different scanning tools. Inputs in the cars are not universal, which means that mechanics must buy special scanners to retrieve data from some models.
Repair shops have to buy an assortment of scanning devices and software, depending on the manufacturer, and must continually train employees on how to use them. That can be expensive, Gage said. Shops that try to save money by buying generic scanners sometimes find the scanners don’t have all the functions as those produced by the automakers.
Dealers who focus on their investment in specific brands can provide better service for those brands, said Tom Brown, president of the Maine Auto Dealers Association. He added that dealers’ service departments invest heavily to keep up with technology. Any repair shop can buy the same tools and software and get the same kind of training, but not everyone wants to make that investment, he said.
“Some folks are better able to do that than others, based on their business plan,” he said.
But not all auto dealers oppose the legislation. Adam Arens, owner of Patriot Subaru in Saco, said he supports it.
“I absolutely believe in no restraint in trade,” he said. “If we don’t provide unique professional services, people should be free to go where they want.”
Meanwhile, Michael Cowett, owner of Mike Cowett’s Auto Body-Towing in Presque Isle, who worked on the Robertsons’ Subaru last winter, said the auto industry is already making improvements. He now has the codes to reboot the computers on Subarus, and if the Robertsons came to his shop today, there would be no need to drive to the dealership in Bangor, he said.
Staff Writer Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at:
This story was updated at 11:44 a.m. Tuesday, February 5, 2013 to correct the type of malfunction that prompted the Subaru’s warning light and the cost of scanners.