Matt Lonsdale is a graduate of the Schulich School of Law at Dalhousie University.
American motor club AAA has spoken out in support of H.R. 1449, The Motor Vehicle Owners Right to Repair Act. The bill, which aims to “protect the rights of consumers to diagnose, service, maintain, and repair their motor vehicles” by placing a duty on automakers to make necessary information and tools available, has some automakers concerned that they will be required to divulge trade secrets.
As automotive technology has advanced and computer systems have become integral components, servicing modern vehicles has begun to require access to increasingly specialized information and tools. The concern is that if an automaker chooses not to make these available, independent repair shops may be unable to repair modern vehicles and will have no choice but to refer owners to dealership-affiliated repair shops. In the spirit of “Promoting competition in price and quality for the diagnosis of problems, service, maintenance, and repair of motor vehicles”, H.R. 1449 places a duty on automakers to make available to owners and repair shops all information necessary to service their vehicles. Complementary duties are introduced with regards to tools and replacement parts. The bill also has a minor privacy component: section 2(a) states that “Car owners have the right to choose where and to whom information generated by their vehicle and vehicle computers is sent”.
H.R. 1449 is not the first bill of its kind to be introduced, nor is it the first to use the name The Right to Repair Act. A federal Right to Repair Act was proposed as early as 2002, and similar bills have been introduced in several state legislatures.
While the desire to promote competition and protect independent repair shops is laudable, automakers are concerned that the bill may require them to disclose trade secrets, allowing third parties to produce generic replacement parts for their vehicles. Some independent repair shops agree with them. According to independent shop owner Diane Larson, all the necessary tools and information are already available for a cost. Of a similar bill in the Massachusetts state legislature, she said “Passing this bill doesn’t help anyone, except for the parts manufacturers”.
In the US, trade secrets fall under state jurisdiction. The majority of states have chosen to adopt the provisions of the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, a model law drafted by the National Conference of Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. The UTSA defines a trade secret as information that has economic value, is not readably ascertainable by others who might gain economic value from it and is the subject of reasonable efforts to maintain its secrecy.
Predictions about the death of independent repair shops have been made before. Donny Seyfer, quoted in a New York Times article from 2007, talked about the mood in the industry when he started working as a mechanic in 1983: “It was doom and gloom. ‘Independent shops aren’t going to be able to fix anything’”. But just as claims that home taping would kill the music industry proved not to be true, independent repair shops have not died out. With over 250,000 automotive technicians employed by independent repair shops in the United States, and a host of aftermarket parts manufacturers and distributors coming out in support, the Right to Repair Act has a large fanbase. However, the large auto manufacturers are not blind to the need to protect their intellectual property and will certainly not let the bill pass without some lobbying of their own.