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Bill Would Give Mechanics Information & Tools Available To Dealers

NEW BEDFORD — Sam Giammalvo's Auto Sales, a 50-year-old business on Purchase Street, opened its doors at a time when mechanics could diagnose problems and fix cars without sophisticated computer technology.

Decades ago, "you needed a good shop manual and tools," said Art Kinsman of the Boston-based Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition. "Today you need literally millions of pages of information and all kinds of electronic tools to get the job done." Bay State lawmakers are weighing a bill that would give independent shops like Giammalvo's the same access to this information as dealers affiliated with big-name manufacturers. The bill also would require diagnostic tools be made available to independent shops "at a reasonable and nondiscriminatory price."
The so-called "right to repair" bill, one of several being considered by lawmakers, is expected to emerge today from the Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, where Rep. Robert M. Koczera, D-New Bedford, predicted it would win favor.

"From what I've been told, the votes are there in committee," he said, adding that he, too, supports the bill. "A lot of people have their own mechanics," he said. "If those mechanics are capable enough to deal with the new electronics "¦ they should be able to access whatever codes and information they need." As things stand, independent shops are blocked from certain repair jobs because they lack this access, according to Sam Giammalvo's son, Mark Giammalvo, a city police officer who helps his father at the shop. Sam Giammalvo's Auto Sales paid more than $6,000 for the generic scan tool that mechanics use to determine the causes of various vehicle problems. Generic scan tools used to work on cars from a wider range of manufacturers, Mark Giammalvo said. But now, "you'll get this code that refers you to a dealer scan tool. I don't have a dealer scan tool."

This can force independent repair shops to refer their customers to dealers. "It's profit lost and, quite frankly, it's embarrassing," Giammalvo said. "The customer looks at you (like), 'What do you mean, you can't fix my car?'" This also can undermine competition, according to Rep. John F. Quinn, D-Dartmouth, who supports the bill along with Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral, D-New Bedford.
Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition coordinator Kinsman said he was optimistic the bill would be successful this session, despite a similar bill's death without a vote in the House after it was favorably reported out of committee in 2008. Similar legislation is pending in the U.S. Congress. 

"The more people know about this, the more they realize it's fair for consumers, it's fair for small businessmen," Kinsman said. Still, "there are powerful players on the other side from the auto industry who want to see this bill killed."

Robert O'Koniewski is the executive vice president of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association. "We've strongly opposed it," he said, in part because dealers are required to meet capital investment, facility and training requirements to secure their franchise status. "To draft a law to try to put independent repair shops on the same footing as dealers, we have issues with," he said. At the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, "We think legislation is unnecessary because we know that that information is already available to anyone who wants to access it," Director of Government Affairs Paul Ryan said.

The National Automotive Service Task Force Web site provides temporary access to service information for a user fee. Ford, for example, charges $22 for 72 hours, $325 for a month and $2,700 for one year.  "Everything that is available to a franchise dealer is available to the independents" online, Ryan said. But Kinsman said, "In some cases, they're kind of getting the CliffsNotes version of things."

And even when independent mechanics purchase temporary access to information, these guides can still refer them to a dealer scan tool, according to Mark Giammalvo.
Regardless, Jim Lutz — a dealer at Alden Buick GMC Truck in Fairhaven and Alden Volkswagen Fairhaven — argued that independent shops are faring just fine.
Independent shops, he said, "have the bulk of the business already."

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