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Maine Lawmaker Seeks to 'Level Playing Field' for Independent Auto Shops
04/18/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

As modern cars have become more computerized, some repairs have become more complicated, and the technology more expensive. Some say that dealerships, which have special access to diagnostic tools and information, have an unfair advantage over independent repair shops, Aroostook County state Rep. Bernard Ayotte would like to - as he sees it - level the playing field. But as Patty Wight reports, automakers and dealerships maintain that there's no problem to fix. Patty Wight reports.

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Rep. Ayotte says his bill is about more than just an attempt to balance the competing interest of dealerships and independent mechanics. It's also, he says, about consumers. "If you buy a car, you should determine where you bring it for repair."

But supporters of Ayotte's bill say that consummers don't always have that choice. In 2012, Aroostook county resident Dan Robertson says his daughter got into an accident with her Subaru Impreza. An independent mechanic in Presque Isle was able to repair her car except for one small thing: The tire pressure light on the dashboard wouldn't shut off. Robertson's mechanic said he didn't have the capability to reprogram the car's computer, nor did any of the other repair shops in town.

Robertson says he was told take his car to a dealership. "The closest dealer was in Bangor," he said. "I accompanied my daughter and had the job done. Three hours and 15 minutes down, 20 minutes at the dealer, and 3 hours and 15 minutes back. Just to shut that light out."

Robertson sahred his story in testimony before the , which is considering Ayotte's bill. Also on hand was independent mechanic Mark Duval, who runs a repair shop in South Portland. Duval says he needs countless diagnostic tools from manufacturers to repair the variety of cars he sees.

"The cost of creating or getting all the equipment necessary to do GM, Ford, Chrysler, Volkwagon, Volvo, and all the other manufacturers that come under the stream could be up to $150,000 to $200,000 - just for the hardware, never mind the monthly cost of software," Duval said. "So it's cost prohibitive to get this information."

Duval says even if he could afford to buy the equipment, the information he can access only goes so far. He and other independent mechanics say dealers have an unfair competitive advantage when it comes to repair - some even call it a monopoly.

But Ken Boyce, an independent mechanic from Buxton and member of the Automotive Service Association, says there is no problem, or unfair advantage. He says he attends trainings all over the country to stay on top of car changing technology.

"It's my opinion that there are no secret codes," he said. "The secret is in education and tooling, and learning where to find it and how to get it."

Matthew Godlewski of the Allaince of Automobile Manufacturers agrees that the information is out there for those who want it. In fact, he says manufacturers want independent mechanics to access the information so that car owners are satisfied customers.

But he says he worries that if individual states such as Maine start passing laws, the result will be a patchwork of regulations that will make it nearly impossible for automakers to comply.

"I really do strongly believe that Maine consumers, Maine independent repair shops, Maine dealers - all of the parties - are best served by a national solution to this that brings uniformity and predictability across all segments of the vehicle repair experience," Godlewski said.

Last year, after years of debate, Massachussetts enacted a so-called "Right to Repair" bill that requires easy access to car codes and tools for both dealerships and indepedent repair shops.

Aaron Lowe of the Automotive After Market Industry Association says his organization worked with interested parties to forge a successful compromise in Massachusetta. Lowe says he's currently working at the national level and asked Maine lawmakers to wait a year to see if, indeed, a federal solution can be reached.


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