Ray Magliozzi is one half of NPR’s show “Car Talk,” a longtime independent repair-shop owner, a Dear Car Talk columnist and a car reviewer on CarTalk.com.
When your car breaks, what do you do? Okay, after you utter a certain word? You have to decide where to take the car to get it fixed, right?
You really have two choices. You can go to the dealership or an independent repair shop. However, some car manufacturers don’t want to share key information for diagnosing and fixing cars with independent shops — and that’s something that’s not only bad for repair shops but also bad for you.
As a radio host who has advised thousands on their car problems and as an independent shop owner myself, I know all too well that car owners benefit when they have more choices. Congress is considering a national “right-to-repair” law, and lawmakers need to pass it to protect your rights as a consumer.
Back in the old days, when people were still switching over from traveling by mastodon, you repaired cars with your eyes, ears, nose and hands — and, if you were desperate, a Chilton repair manual. Now, you often repair a car by first plugging a computer into the on-board-diagnostics port and seeing what the computer tells you is broken.
So, what’s the problem? Carmakers and their dealerships want to maintain control of modern diagnostic tools, which forces customers to come to them for repairs. Even though independents are willing to pay to license these tools, dealers see an advantage in exclusivity.
Dealerships have always had certain advantages. They have better coffee in their waiting rooms. Heck, they have waiting rooms. They have clean restrooms that don’t double as auxiliary air-filter storage. They also work on your particular make of car all day, every day. So they might be familiar with an oddball problem because they’ve worked on 4,000 Camrys.
Independent shops are small businesses, run by individuals — some of whom are terrific people and mechanics and some of whom will blame your car troubles on demonic possession and give you essential oils to fix it.
But independent shops have their own advantage: price. Their labor and parts costs are usually much lower — hey, who do you think is ultimately paying for the dealerships’ coffee and fancy couches? Some research has found that dealers, on average, charged as much as 20 percent more than independent shops for the same repairs.
There’s also the matter of distance. Not every town in the United States has a stop light, let alone a dealership for every car brand. There are 16,752 franchised car dealers in the United States, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association, but there are nearly 240,000 repair shops — meaning that for a lot of people, an independent shop is the only nearby option.
At Car Talk, there are times we’ll strongly recommend an independent shop for standard work like brakes, shocks, the engine and regular service. And there are times we’ll recommend going to the dealership, like when you have a particularly rare problem that might be unique to your make and model. But at the end of the day, you should take your car to the dealer to be fixed because you want to not because dealers have hoarded all the key information.
Beyond the information needed to diagnose and fix your car, dealerships also want to maintain control of your car’s telematics. What are telematics? Well, now that everything is connected to the internet, your car can notify your dealer when your car needs an oil change or has a blown sensor. Using the software they’re denying to independent shops, the dealer can then diagnose the trouble code, call you and schedule a repair. Most modern cars already have this ability.
Car manufacturers point to the importance of keeping your car’s data safe — including your location, say — as a reason to deny independent shops access to these tools and codes. They are right about the need for data security, but part of privacy is that you should be the one to decide who has access to your data.
At least 17 states have laws on the books stating that your vehicle’s data belongs to you. Many independent repair shops will need to invest in tools to keep customer data secure, but just because they’ll need to invest doesn’t mean they can’t compete with dealers. Lack of choice — and competition — is never good for the consumer.
So consumer groups and independent shops are promoting what they call right-to-repair legislation, guaranteeing consumers more choice by requiring automakers to license their data with independent repair shops. The voters in my fair state of Massachusetts approved just such a law in 2020. In 2021, 27 states introduced or passed similar legislation. Beyond those state laws, there’s a national push to protect consumers and independent shops. H.R. 6570, a national right-to-repair bill, has been sitting with the House Energy and Commerce Committee for months.
My Car Talk colleagues and I know not everyone will support right-to-repair laws. Dealerships won’t like the level playing field. Mechanics might not like how much work they’ll actually have to do. Still, this is an issue everyone else can get behind. If you own something, you should be able to choose where to repair it.