Car dealers and importers are desperate to protect their data, but the ACCC wants a "level playing field"

Canberra apprentice mechanic Maisie Place is among the thousands who need access to manufacturer diagnostic and repair information. Picture: Matt Loxton
Canberra apprentice mechanic Maisie Place is among the thousands who need access to manufacturer diagnostic and repair information. Picture: Matt Loxton

The decade-long dispute between new car dealers and thousands of Australia's independent mechanics over access to vital information needed to diagnose and fix vehicle faults is finally coming to a head.

New federal legislation is now being drafted which will give the nation's 23,000 independent repairers the access they need for affordable repairs after a long period in which the industry has obfuscated on the issue.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission waded into the dispute two years ago after its market study into the new car retailing industry found a voluntary information-sharing arrangement had failed.

Car dealers and importers want the information protected as much as possible, claiming they are the only ones who fully invest in the latest technology and training.

However, the independents say there are millions of cars on Australia's roads which depend on full access to this detailed information so cars can be properly repaired and correctly tuned.

It's a battle which has raged in the background of the car industry for more than a decade as on-board vehicle computer systems have become more complex and integrated, and with access to those systems becoming tougher for those independents "outside" the franchises.

Debate is raging about more open access to vehicle diagnostic and repair information. Picture: Peter Brewer

Debate is raging about more open access to vehicle diagnostic and repair information. Picture: Peter Brewer

Jon Waterhouse, who owns and runs the long-established Reliance Automotive in Fyshwick, said the information access problem had been "going on for years" in Australia and most independents have had no option but develop "workarounds".

"Australian is the only major market in the world where this type of restriction applies; in markets like the US, a mandatory right to repair has existed for years," he said.

With the intensity of competition within the new car market and showroom profit margins shrinking, car dealers have increasingly reliant on their service and repair operations for income.

To protect this income they want key diagnostic information quarantined. Dealer and new car industry lobby groups have been fiercely pushing for this protection to be enshrined in the new legislation.

However, the first legislative skirmish in the battle appears to have favoured the independents.

In the public exposure draft which seeks to amend the Competition and Consumer Act 2010, the legislation seeks to "promote competition between Australian repairers of passenger and light goods motor vehicles and establish a fair playing field by mandating access to diagnostic, repair and servicing information on fair and reasonable commercial terms".

It also aims to "enable consumers to have those vehicles repaired by an Australian repairer of their choice who can provide effective and safe services".

Attempts by the car importers and its lobbyists to quell dissent through developing a voluntary code of practice - which in some cases just directed enquiries to an email address - failed, and the independents became increasingly vocal that the agreement was skewed to protect the car companies with only the appearance of transparency.

Organisations representing the independents, such as the Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association, warned its members had experienced "systemic issues".

The new legislation seeks to redress the imbalance, but where the independents are likely to find a tougher fight is in the finer detail which will be hammered out in the months ahead.

The information belongs to the car companies but the proposed legislation says access costs for independents should not exceed "a fair market value".

How that value is determined is unclear, but any breaches of this "fair market value" are proposed to carry fines of up to $10 million.

One of the key sticking points in the information battle has been access to vehicle safety and security systems, with car companies arguing that cars can be easily stolen or made unsafe if the right information fell into the wrong hands.

The draft legislation says that those gaining access to the data "must satisfy certain criteria relating to whether they are fit and proper persons to have access to such information", including a criminal records check.

This story Access to repair data becomes the new industry battleground first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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