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Interesting article about the “Right-to-repair bill”….

The federal “cash for clunkers” program succeeded in bringing customers back to new car lots after a long absence, but most people are still driving the car they had. Increasingly they are driving to their local mechanics to make sure those cars last even longer.

That is good news for the independent automotive repair industry because car owners are now willing to spend their money on repair work rather than take on new car payments, and they are saving on those repairs at independent shops.

But while consumers appear content to keep their older cars on the road, they are increasingly discovering that their car’s computerized systems may be conspiring to force them to turn to more expensive dealer repair shops even when those cars are out of warranty.

Most consumers experience this when they see a ‘check engine’ light or another warning that suddenly appears on their dashboard. When they bring it into independent (non-dealer) shops like ours, they simply want the underlying problem fixed so that pesky light goes off.

Sometimes, however, we can’t shut off that light even when we can make the underlying repair.

Most legislation on Beacon Hill is controversial and ultimately difficult to decipher, but Right to Repair is straightforward: You own your car and you should have the right to choose where it gets repaired and not be forced back to dealer mechanics.

House Bill 228 and Senate Bill 124 are controversial only because car manufacturers don’t want car owners to have unfettered access to their own repair information and are fighting it vigorously. That alone should flash a warning light for legislators and consumers that might read: Check Manufacturer’s Motives Now.


  • Michael

    I completely agree as an enthusiast that tries to do their own maintenance and repair work. For the ECUs there is an open source movement for ecu reflashing and tuning. Made possible by the SAE J2534 API mandated by the EPA in 2004 (http://www.drewtech.com/support/j2534/intro.html) projects like OpenECU (www.openecu.org) exist. Though it currently supports only Subaru’s and Mitsubishi Evolutions (http://www.openecu.org/index.php?title=EcuFlash:VehicleSupport), there is no reason it can’t support other vehicles given enough programming time (apparently lots of programmers drive Subaru’s and Evo’s.) Yes it does take some work and lots of web research to be able to reflash your own ecu but the rewards of doing it are great. I was able to tell the ECU in my 2006 Subaru WRX to ignore a stupid emissions trouble code that was causing CEL (check engine light) to come on. While I was at it, I was able to reflash my ecu and gain 30-ish more horsepower, 25-ish more ft-lbs of torque, and increase overall driveability of my car. I did this all myself using open source software, and tools. Try to get them to do that at the dealership!!

  • Jon K

    I am an automotive software diagnostics engineer with a specific focus on hybrid/electric powertrain technology. The reason is that if you gave access to the new computer systems for vehicles. Someone would could theoritically hack into the powertrain software. This while sounding like a basic right to everyone on this site (and I agree to some extent) would allow people to start playing with safety algorithms and thus unintentionally accelerate the vehicle (breaking federal law). The reason that auto companies don’t want you to mess the software is for your own safety (unless you have an advanced controls/power electronics/powertrain degree). Now what they could do is make a very informative computer that would tell you what to do about it. This isn’t a computer that you can hack and that the computer company cannot be held reliable for. This is a potential deadly weapon. And yes I know that it is my job we are talking about, but the stuff I design is meant to try and never leave you stranded and minimized the damage to more components from one failure. You mess with it, you mess with some potentially life protecting software (think about the fact most vehicles won’t let you press the brake and the accelorator at the same time brake wins, if the diagnostics on the car are worth anything). What would be better would be an open source car. But you will never have it happen because of the ability to potentially kill someone. (my car just accelerated on its own into the intersection) I am a big fan of the maker movement and encourage everyone to try and make their own car. Just realize that you have to do a full what could go wrong system check to make sure that nothing bad happens. (My batteries overcharged and vented hydrogen BOOM) (What happens if my brake pedal wire breaks?) (What happens when the wheels start slipping?)(What happens if a person trys to drive the electric vehicle through a flooded road?)

    • DIY Mechanic

      Huh, I haven’t yet seen a car that disables the accelerator when the brake is pressed; I wouldn’t call that a feature “most” cars have. How could that work with a mechanical throttle linkage? Turn off the injectors? And the whole thing’s pointless if you’re using an engine-vacuum-powered brake booster; if the throttle’s open, you won’t have power brakes, making the car much harder to stop.

      Then again, you may be talking about a drive-by-wire system (ick).

      In the cars I drive and repair, if my brake pedal “wire” breaks, it means my brake lights don’t come on when they’re supposed to.

      Anyway, the more important issue is to get access to the car’s network protocol, proprietary diagnostic trouble code definitions (incl. transmission, braking, active restraint, HVAC, security, and entertainment systems), and ways to reset trouble codes that don’t correct themselves after service has been performed. These are the things that are necessary for maintenance.

  • JD

    What about the 1,000,000 other “safety items” in a car that I can currently screw up on my own, given a simple wrench? Your argument is invalid and opening up the information behind what flags have to be reset when installing a new ABS sensor won’t start killing people magically.

    The reason it’s held secret is to make sure the dealerships can maintain their ridiculous hourly rates due to having the only equipment capable of doing simple things like resetting a flag in a register.

    There is ZERO reason why a Tech2 (GM scanner) needs to cost $5,000. It’s $100 in parts and some VERY simple software. The market is HUGE for scanners at lower price points (count how many garages are around you), but the manufacturers won’t allow it.

    And, now for an example. VAG-COM. It is NOT supported by VW, was reversed engineered, and supports almost everything the mft does. Have lives mysteriously been taken at the hands of VAG-COM? No.

    Lastly, openning up a NETWORK PROTOCOL and REGISTER DEFINITION is not the same thing as releasing the source code. We’re not asking the mft’s to allow us to change the code base, nor even the tables (spark, air/fuel, etc). We’re asking them to allow us to diagnose the problems without a $5000 scanner and reset flags when we install new parts. This isn’t a safety issue.

    • Anonymous

      JD,
      “There is ZERO reason why a Tech2 (GM scanner) needs to cost $5,000. It’s $100 in parts and some VERY simple software. The market is HUGE for scanners at lower price points (count how many garages are around you), but the manufacturers won’t allow it.”

      First, I work in the dept that designs, builds, codes, and supports one of the OEM’s scan tools.
      We spend MILLIONs on their development (across many years).
      They are way more sophisticated then you let on.

      Look into ETI which is the industry’s central repository for vehicle protocol data. Most every scan tool manufacturer is a member. Most OEMs share the majority of information it takes to design a very robust scan tool, as well as reflasher. It is still not a simple task even with that information. There are very few in the market that do it well. None on the aftermarket come close to the OEM specific tools due to the complexity and scale of work it takes to be comprehensive.

      As a DIY’r, you might look into some very inexpensive interfaces like from ELM. That’s pretty much the bottom end and you will have to do tons of work to approach what it means to be a “scan tool” with those basic hardware components.

      There is lots of dialouge from DIY’rs on mp3car.com if you want more information. But…there is a LOT of misinformation there too, so be cautioned.

      It is not neary as trival as you imply.

  • Kevin Carson

    Jon K.: I imagine a software hacker could already do that, if they wanted to badly enough. The main beneficiary of making the system transparent and readable by generic, non-dealership diagnostic equipment is the non-techie customer who wants alternatives to the high-cost dealership mechanics.

    Just like open-source shouldn’t just be for the geek who likes to modify code, but also for the consumer who wants to have access to a software CD for $10 instead of paying Bill Gates $200.

  • Chris C.

    People will tell you that you need a scan tool on anything that is OBDII (On board diagnostics 2, 1995 and above I believe). I have a 1998 Honda Prelude that falls into this category. It took me a while to realize there is also a way to run the codes by jumpering a connector, in the dealer shop manual right next to the standard “scanner” codes there is another number in parenthesis which is the number of times the CEL (check engine light) will flash when jumpered.

    Even if you don’t have the manual sometimes the info is available online.

    I believe a large part of the problem is that the companies don’t want the “I hate these computerized cars…” type shadetree mechanics away from them. Most people (even those who have worked on cars for years) do not realize how often the problem is merely a sensor causing the ECU to run a “limp” program which tends to effect driveability, fuel mileage, etc.

    I personally believe in Open source…on everything. This is the only way that technology will advance without greed getting in the way. If you buy a car you should be able to have access to any literature or tools that the dealer mechanic has access to, which in my experience has been available but often expensive.

    If people are upset about a particular company’s policies the best bet is to boycott.

  • tiorbinist

    It seems that the major fight here is between the holders/protectors of the propriety-laden information and the folk who want to have some control over those grossly-expensive juggernauts with inscrutable computers and sensors and such. But the major arguments are all about whether it is difficult to make a good, universal scanner or not.

    Who needs a universal scanner? I need two things: the hardware interface and the information for my cars. And in fact, since two of the cars are Honda Civics (1996 and 2003), it is unlikely that the codes are that different between them. The third is a Geo Metro.

    Car manufacturers are missing out on an important sales fact here: if I own a Civic and I get a specialized scanner for my civic and pay 200 bucks for it, it’s actually going to make me more likely to buy another Civic that uses the same scanner as my next car. Why? Because people are a little weird about money, and are resigned to cars costing so much… but the tools and accessories they get tend to be understandable for cost and value. So (in the past) they’d stick with American cars because they owned English-system wrenches! The fact that new wrenches cost a few percent of the cost of a different-system car… only very few people (2 actually) I’ve ever met see it.

    So making limited-use scanners available to DIY-er’s would be a boon to the car manufacturer that does it, rather than a danger. It certainly isn’t going to cause the 99% of people who don’t want to know what is under the hood (other than the buzz words) and would rather be boiled in automotive oil than change their own auto’s oil (and figure out what to do with the old oil!)

    It has always seemed to me that the secrecy and wildly different command sets (prior to the small amount of unification in OBDII) was aimed at this, specifically: that manufacturers would make diagnostic tools available to DIYers that would ‘trap’ them into brand-loyalty, since the tools would only work on their cars. It may have been a major failing of the car industry that they never saw their way to it.

    One last point, on safety: There are more ways to ensure that someone using a specialized scanner can’t set their car up unsafely, than to leave it so that people can do what they want, even if it means driving unsafe. But there’s a precedent for letting people drive unsafe cars, too: there’s no air pressure cops (despite Obama’s silly press-conference speeches) and no one to enforce changing oil on schedule. Brake repair/maintenance can be let go until there’s no disk for the calipers to grab, for heavens’ sakes! And the idea that a car company would set up your car to go into ‘limp’ mode on a crowded, high-speed freeway if one of their cheap (lowest bidder) sensors starts giving out unacceptable readings (we all know they’re never wrong, right?), that’s even more frightening than the rest of it!

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