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Drivers Want Code To Their Cars

 Rachel Seymour, a college student from Portland, Oregon, has had her 2002 Kia Spectra serviced 12 times for a Check Engine light problem. Each time, she's forced to take it to a Kia dealership, where a technician hooks her car up to a computer, runs a battery of tests and charges her $120 to diagnose and repair the same problem: a loose gas cap.

Seymour said she has no problem screwing a gas cap into place, and that the light has even come on while she's driving home from getting her car serviced. But the dealership has stubbornly stood by its computer diagnosis, saying the car's sensors are detecting a loose gas cap and triggering the Check Engine light -- a "consumer error" that is not covered under the car's warranty.

Fed up with wasting time and money, Seymour resorted to a low-tech solution to mask the high-tech problem: She covered the warning light with electrical tape so she wouldn't have to look at it.

"There is really no time in my schedule for sitting around a car dealership listening to some fat guy in a clip-on tie tell me that the problem is my fault," she said. "Instead of explaining anything to me they just pull out a warranty sheet with a highlighted portion indicating that they don't cover Check Engine light problems."

A bill floating through Congress could help people like Seymour by forcing automakers to share diagnostic codes with car buyers and independent mechanics. The Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act would give Seymour the means to determine whether the Check Engine light signaled another gas cap vagary or a major oil leak. The legislation would also allow Seymour to choose an independent -- and possibly cheaper -- repair shop instead of being forced to go to the dealership.

The legislation argues that consumers own their vehicles in their entirety and should be able to access their onboard computers. Just how the codes would be released to car owners isn't addressed, but possibilities include publishing them on CDs or websites, or requiring carmakers to create indicator lights that would pinpoint problems instead of lumping them together under the generic Check Engine-type warnings, said David Parde, president of the Coalition for Auto Repair Equality, a group representing independent mechanics.

The bill, which was presented in both the House and the Senate, would require the Federal Trade Commission to supervise the data disclosure and to mediate disputes.

Automakers oppose the legislation because they fear it would compel them to release proprietary codes that detail how different automotive components are made. These calibration codes would allow independent parts manufacturers to copy components that cost millions of dollars to develop, they argue.

Carmakers agreed to release the diagnostic codes online in August 2003 in an attempt to pre-empt the legislation, but many manufacturers have not fully cooperated, said Parde.

"We're auditing these sites and there are huge gaps in the data," he said. "The legislation is necessary to make sure they keep their word. Right now, they could just turn all the information off tomorrow."

Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a group representing the major carmakers, said the delay is due to the complexity of modern cars.

"Each model contains hundreds of codes," he said. "It's a huge undertaking to take every vehicle and to put every single code on the Internet. As we find gaps, we are filling them in."

Computerized cars came on the market full throttle in 1996 after the passage of the Clean Air Act, which required onboard diagnostic systems to regulate exhaust emissions. Manufacturers quickly expanded cars' computing power to control additional functions ranging from airbag deployment to power steering.

According to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, today's cars have up to 50 microprocessors managing engine performance -- meaning the computing power in the average Toyota Camry is 1,000 times more complex than the system that guided Apollo 11 to the moon.

But carmakers have kept a tight grip on access to automotive computers, forcing consumers to get their vehicles serviced at dealerships when independent repair shops can't access the car's brain.

Historically, non-dealer shops have performed 75 percent of vehicle service and repairs, according to the automakers' own statistics. Independent shops charge that automakers are trying to muscle in on this lucrative business -- which some analysts estimate at $200 billion a year -- by increasing computer functions in cars and restricting the access keys.

Neighborhood garages must pay to download the diagnostic codes from automakers' websites and purchase pricey scanners to communicate with automotive computers. Nevertheless, independent mechanics are frequently forced to turn away longtime clients because so many of the codes are unavailable for late-model cars.

"A lot of these cars say 'code undefined' and require the dealer's scan tool," said Mark Giammalvo, who works at his family shop in New Bedford, Massachusetts. "It upsets independents like me because we're losing service dollars and it makes us look unprofessional in the eyes of our customers."

Ermino Caporole, the owner of P&E Auto in Morton Grove, Illinois, said he has separate scanners for each car model, but still loses 10 percent of his business to dealerships because of the information blackout. On several occasions, he has had to tow a customer's car to a dealership after realizing he couldn't access the codes.

Some weekend wrenches have bought scaled-down versions of the scanners used by auto shops to tinker with their engines. Jay Hamill, a PC technician from Macedon, New York, spent several hundred dollars on a product called AutoXray to perform checkups on his 1994 Ford Bronco, but said the device has saved him money on repairs.

"Knowing the problems that the computer is reporting can help keep you from getting ripped off by a shady mechanic or dealer," he said. "But this does require some automotive knowledge, something that most people just flat-out refuse to learn."

The scanner only lets Hamill decipher trouble codes and clear them. Other tools, such as the Hypertech Power Programmer, let consumers modify their cars' computer settings to increase horsepower and torque.

Bryan Hanks, who has taken his 2002 Toyota Prius to his local Houston dealership four times since a single sensor malfunctioned and the Check Engine signal prevented him from using the car's electronic display, said automakers should incorporate USB ports in dashboards to allow consumers to download error messages to a laptop.

"If this occurs again once the vehicle goes out of warranty, I'm going to have to fork over $90 or so to have the error message reset by the dealer," he said. 

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