The "right to repair" one's vehicle wherever one chooses isn't in the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights, but many people in the maintenance and parts business believe it almost should be. Original-equipment dealers don't agree and have some real-money reasons why certain servicing information should remain proprietary. The issue has a lengthy history, and now there's legislation pending in Congress that would give independent shops what they want.

They want access to information and special tools needed to service and repair modern trucks, said two shop proprietors at the recent Fall Meeting of the Technology & Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations. OE truck dealers refuse to provide these, forcing owners to take their vehicles to dealers' shops where they sit in line and charges are often higher.

This is a monopoly and it ought to be illegal, the independents said. House Resolution 2057 would make it so, said the two shop owners, Marc Karon, president of Total Truck Parts, with several facilities in Florida, and Dave Scheer, president of Inland Truck Parts, with 27 locations in the central U.S.

OE dealers don't have the capacity to handle all repairs of late-model trucks, so they concentrate on warranty fixes and more routine work waits, Karon charged. The nature of OE franchising means there is only one dealer in a given geographic area, so customers are forced to use it. An industry agreement forged in 2001 allows for arbitrating disputes, but it requires face-to-face negotiations among lawyers who must travel to Loudon County, Va., for meetings.

HR 2057 Opposition

The service industry would prefer a more effective industry solution, maybe through TMC, to government intervention, Karon said. But opposition from dealers and truck OE manufacturers might make passage of HR 2057 necessary. It has several sponsors in the House of Representatives but faces an uncertain future. A similar bill was considered in the Senate nine years ago but died.

Like Karon's company, Scheer's has trained, certified technicians and large stocks of parts and the tools to install them, Sheer said. But his people are hobbled when they encounter diagnostic fault codes that they cannot decipher or can't get specialty tools. On several occasions mechanics needed only vehicle wiring diagrams to repair a truck or install new equipment, but the local dealers refused to provide them. So the trucks had to be sent to their shops for work involving the wiring system, then returned to an Inland shop where the work was completed.

"I'll pay a fair market price for this information," Scheer said. "I don't want design information and proprietary knowledge. These restrictions are artificial and are not free enterprise... Let the market decide" who should repair motor vehicles.

The OE Side

There are legal and competitive reasons for dealers guarding information about the trucks they sell, said Gerald Chunn of the Lone Star Truck Group, a Freightliner and Western Star dealer with facilities in Texas, Louisiana and New Mexico. An OE dealer has to meet expensive requirements that independent shops don't, he said, so deserve special protection. Selling trucks in this economy has become unprofitable, but franchise laws in Texas require that dealers take trade-ins, even if they lose money on them.

The OEM requires dealers to invest millions of dollars in facilities, parts and tools and assumes the dealer can pay for them. Some parts are never sold and some tools are never used, but the OEM insists that dealers buy them on the chance that they will be, Chunn said. Meanwhile, the OE invests hundreds of millions of dollars a year developing new trucks and systems to make them more efficient and keep them legal, and wants to be sure the vehicles are properly maintained. Dealers provide a nationwide network that over-the-road users can use, and they back each others' work.

Getting Information

"Independent shops bring no new products to market, they don't sell trucks, and they stock few of the parts I must," Chunn said. As to information needed to work on a truck, "If an '88 Mack comes into my shop in New Mexico, I can find 99 percent of the information I need to work on that Mack on the Internet," so independent shops should try harder to obtain what they need on the Net. To fleet managers in the audience, Chunn said, "You as customers can get 100 percent of the information you need for your trucks from OE repair shops."

In the case of those trucks Scheer talked about - the ones whose wiring diagrams were unobtainable to his mechanics - could the trucks' owners have gotten the diagrams from dealers, then turned them over to Sheer's people? "Absolutely," Chunn said. "'Give me your fax number - I'll send it right over.'" Did Sheer's people ask the trucks' owners to do that? "I don't know," Sheer answered, but suggested that would've been awkward.

A Balance

But increasingly complex vehicles and OEMs' swing to use of proprietary components makes the situation more serious, said Darry Stuart, a fleet consultant and former TMC general chairman, during a question-and-answer session. Information becomes more specialized, and only OE dealers have direct access to it. Independent technicians can't rely on their years of experience to sort out problems.

"We're trapped by technology and vertical integration," Stuart declared. "It's changing so fast that experience doesn't prevail anymore... There has to be a balance."

Updated 9/29/09 to correct the spelling of Gerald Chunn's name and to clarify the lead sentence.