Have you ever had a longtime customer buy new trucks and tell you he can't give you his parts and service business anymore?
If you haven't, you probably will.

As sophisticated electronics move from the engine to other parts of the truck, from the multiplexed dashboard to the transmission and beyond, independent service providers say they're increasingly blocked from getting vital information they need to make repairs.

The problem, labeled as an "access to information" issue or, especially in the automotive arena, as "right to repair," has a lengthy history and isn't going away anytime soon.

Automotive and heavy truck parts and service providers believe that vehicle owners should have the "right to repair" their vehicle wherever they choose. Original-equipment dealers don't agree, and have some real-money reasons why certain servicing information should remain proprietary. Equipment manufacturers say they limit access to some information to protect their investment, and to ensure that only qualified technicians with the right tools and information work on their products.

Dave Scheer, president of Inland Truck Parts, with 27 locations in the central U.S., is an independent distributor and service provider who's an activist on this issue.

"Customers come to us because they want an alternate choice to the dealer," Scheer explains. "My contention is, the only thing we want is the service information. We're not trying to get proprietary information so we can copy their parts and make them (which some manufacturers say is their reason for making some information proprietary.) All I want is the ability to service the customer's truck. I buy the same types of tools, I buy the same types of diagnostic software, I have two full-time trainers in my organization that do nothing but technical training. Our techs are as qualified as anybody.

"So to me it appears that instead of competing with me on an even playing field, and allowing the marketplace to make the choice of where the customer wants to take his truck, [OEs and dealers are] trying to force the customer to take it back to the dealer because they can't earn the business otherwise."

Meeting of the minds?

The independent aftermarket is trying several avenues to address the issue. One is trying to get Congress to pass a law requiring equipment makers to share this information. The Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act," House Resolution 2057, has been steadily gaining support since its introduction, say backers, and now has 51 sponsors. Although discussion about the bill has focused on car owners, it would apply to heavy trucks as well.

However, watchers say the chance for passage anytime in the near future is slim to none. As Scheer explains, "All of the energy [in Congress] is being sucked into healthcare reform and the economic situation, so it's difficult for them to think about a bill like right to repair when they have these other monsters."

No similar bill has been introduced in the Senate.

Truck repair shops say legislation is really not their first choice of a solution. To that end, three years ago, under the auspices of the Heavy Duty Distribution Association (part of the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, a proponent of the Right to Repair legislation), the Commercial Vehicle Task Force was formed. The plans were to seek the cooperation of the OEMs in "developing a voluntary system to ensure the independent aftermarket's access to all necessary tools and information."

So far, however, Scheer says no manufacturers have responded to the group's invitation to sit down and discuss the issue and work toward solutions. The group has turned to educating distributors and customers about the problem.

Scheer believes a solution may not be reached until customers get totally fed up and let manufacturers know they're not going to put up with being forced into the dealer's service bays.

"It's the truck owner, the final customer, that's really the most important person in this discussion. And right now it's not as difficult for them as it's going to get," Scheer says. "The more and more components that are controlled electronically, and the more and more access is restricted, the more the truck owner will begin to feel that reduced level of customer service. They will become dissatisfied, and it will take that sort of dissatisfaction to force the truck dealer to allow companies like us to do the work."

Fleet group steps up

Enter a new forum that those concerned about this issue hope will be a place where discussions could lead to solutions: The Technology and Maintenance Council of the American Trucking Associations.

Traditionally a group made up of fleet maintenance executives and representatives from manufacturers and suppliers, TMC has a long history of providing a forum where suppliers and customers can air their differences as well as work together on equipment issues. In the past few years, TMC has also been reaching out to the dealer and independent aftermarket service provider communities, inviting them to become members and join in discussions.

One of those discussions, at the Fall Meeting of TMC, tackled the access to information issue, resulting in what has diplomatically been called a "lively discussion."

Lively Discussion

TMC has formed an Access to Information Task Force. It's headed up by Lew Flowers, a former fleet executive and longtime active member of TMC, and now manager of national fleet sales at Heavy Duty America. At the fall meeting, they had an exploratory meeting, including a panel discussion featuring two independent shop owners and an OE dealer.

Scheer, along with Marc Karon, president of Total Truck Parts, with several facilities in Florida, laid out the issue, charging that the way things work now, dealers have a monopoly, and that ought to be illegal.

OE dealers don't have the capacity to handle all repairs of late-model trucks, so they concentrate on warranty fixes while 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, according to the panelists.

The service industry would prefer a more effective industry solution, maybe through TMC, to government intervention, Karon said. But, he said, opposition from dealers and truck OE manufacturers might make passage of HR 2057 necessary.

Karon's company and Scheer's company both have 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 the dealer 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," Sheer 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 dealer view

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, at the TMC event. 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 he noted that franchise laws i