What’s behind the so-called “Right to Repair”?

The aftermarket is attempting to grow their business, but couched in consumer protection language.

The issue of “Right to Repair” has been more visible of late for a variety of reasons not the least of which was the passage of Bill 29 – An Act to protect consumers from planned obsolescence and to promote the durability, repairability and maintenance of goods in early October by Quebec’s National Assembly.

That Bill went from introduction at the beginning of June to Royal Assent at the beginning of October. In the world of legislative progress, that is lightning fast; even more so when one considers that the National Assembly was on summer recess for three months between those two dates!    

Federally, Bill C-244 An Act to Amend the Copyright Act (diagnosis, maintenance and repair):  a Private Member’s Bill — received 3rd Reading in the House of Commons on October 18th and was introduced for 1st Reading in the Senate on October 18th. It remains to be seen how long this bill will take to make it through the upper chamber, but it is not expected to face many challenges.

One of the reasons why the Quebec bill, and to a certain extent the federal bill, have received such apparent broad support from legislators — regardless of political party — is the basic premise of both bills.

Both have simple and compelling narratives around ensuring that consumer goods such as cellphones, computers and white goods should be able to be easily and inexpensively repaired by either the manufacturer or some other qualified individual to avoid the situation of having to scrap the broken device or appliance and purchase a new one.   

There is significant, and I would suggest appropriate, concern about products which could otherwise be repaired, ending up in the waste stream which adds unnecessarily to the quantity of waste and e-waste being produced. Who could possibly be against legislation to ensure goods can be repaired and to avoid unnecessary waste?    

A corollary objective to the Quebec legislation is right in the title of the bill, and that is legislating against manufacturers who purposefully manufacture items with built in obsolescence.

The ironic thing about both bills is that neither one of them was originally focused on the automotive industry. True to form, and I suppose credit where credit is due, the automotive aftermarket aggressively lobbied to ensure that at the end of the day both pieces of legislation were very much focused on the automotive industry couching their arguments in even more simplistic and emotive language around the “consumer’s right to repair.”   

What politician wouldn’t be swayed by a compelling (but incorrect) narrative that seeks to preserve the right for consumers to repair their own vehicles or to have their vehicles repaired wherever they want to?

I suggest that this narrative — as compelling as it may be — is incorrect because, in the first instance very few consumers undertake their own vehicle repairs anymore simply because of the complexity of modern vehicles as they have largely changed from mechanical devices to electronic devices or — to use an overworked phrase — “computers on wheels.” Most of us have a hard time figuring out how to add windshield fluid let alone contemplating the undertaking of any type of repair.   

In the second instance, the inference from the aftermarket is that consumers do not have the ability to have their vehicle repaired by whoever, wherever they want. The reality is that both aftermarket and the vehicle manufacturers in Canada worked in a collaborative fashion over a decade ago to develop the Canadian Automotive Service Information Standard (CASIS). This agreement ensured that manufacturers provided to the aftermarket access to the same information, tooling, equipment and training as was being provided to their franchised dealers.    

It was acknowledged at the time by both sides that this access was not to be for free, given that it has commercial value that is also part of a dealer’s franchise agreement with their manufacturer.

That said, the primary goal of CASIS is to “provide access to Service Information, OEM Tools and Training Information to Service Providers for diagnosis and repair at Commercially Reasonable Prices.”    

Despite this agreement however, some of the trade associations within the automotive aftermarket continued to lobby for “the consumer’s right to repair” even before the ink was dry on the voluntary agreement. One of the contentions from the aftermarket has been that CASIS is somehow deficient because it does not deal with security information such as keys and immobilizer systems, yet it was acknowledged by both the manufacturers and the aftermarket at the time that security related information was appropriately outside of the scope of CASIS. The direct wording from the agreement is as follows:

The Parties recognize that there is currently no uniform widely available secure infrastructure in Canada for making security-related information available to Service Providers as necessary to reinitialize ignition keys and immobilizer systems for Motor Vehicles employing integral vehicle security systems in a manner that ensures Motor Vehicle security. The Parties also recognize that vehicle security and integrity is of paramount importance to the Parties and to other stakeholders, such as the federal, provincial and municipal governments, law enforcement agencies, the insurance industry, and the owners and operators of Motor Vehicles in Canada.

The Parties will endeavour to find a mutually beneficial solution to this issue, such solution likely requiring the creation of a supporting infrastructure.

When one considers the current epidemic of auto theft in Canada you can appreciate the sensitivity around having broad access to key codes and vehicle immobilizer initiation data.   

Nonetheless, the aftermarket, largely through the personal initiative of the late John Norris did develop, and was the administrator for, the Vehicle Security Professional designation. This allowed some technicians in the aftermarket to be thoroughly vetted through a security protocol, developed in conjunction with Canadian Police Information Centre, amongst others.

These measures were robust enough to persuade a number of manufacturers to provide those with the designation the security information to aftermarket technicians so they could appropriately repair these functions in vehicles. Regrettably, with John’s passing in 2019 this system floundered, but John’s work demonstrated the willingness of both parties to develop and embrace a viable solution.

At the end of the day, the continued push by the aftermarket for legislation, the likes of which we have just seen introduced in Quebec has little to do with a consumer’s right to repair and everything to do with the aftermarket looking to enshrine in legislation their ability to continue to grow their majority share of the automotive service and repair business in Canada, regardless of the potential safety implications for Canadian vehicle owners arising from the legislative initiatives they are pursuing.

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