Jack Faris: Small Business Focus: Danger: Stone Wall Ahead

Those who doubt that history repeats itself should peek into the archives of automotive transportation. While credit should go to inventors like Daimler and Benz, you really have to hand it to French engineer Nicholas Cugnot who, in the 1700s, is believed to be not only the first person to create a vehicle that propelled itself, but also the first to crash one into a stone wall.

Now, more than two centuries later, thousands of Americans who created small automotive repair shops are running smack into a bureaucratic stone wall mistakenly erected by their own government. When Congress passed the Clean Air Act more than a decade ago, it somehow overlooked a little item tucked away in the legislation that required all vehicles manufactured after 1994 to use on-board computer diagnostic systems to monitor emissions.

As vehicles have become more technologically advanced, the amount and complexity of information necessary to diagnose problems has increased dramatically. Unlike Cugnot’s steam powered thing on three wheels, today’s automobiles are dependent on numerous internal computers to control everything from the brakes to emissions to climate-control systems. The Clean Air Act, as inadvertently crafted, virtually created a monopoly for the repair shops of automobile dealerships, since their manufacturer-partner companies possess the computer diagnostic codes and data needed to make repairs.

Horsepower Auto Care owner Bob Merrill of Windham, Maine, testified before Congress last year that being unable to gain access to this information is not only unfair to independent repair operations like his, but it is also harmful to consumers. “With little competition in the marketplace, customers are forced to pay whatever the dealerships charge them.”

Auto manufacturers claim they voluntarily offer the information, but it is often incomplete and difficult to obtain. The voluntary system is not enforced, and there are no guarantees that manufacturers are making all necessary data available.

That could soon change if a bill introduced by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (6th Dist.- Texas) gets some traction on Capitol Hill. Congressional action is expected this year on The Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair Act of 2005, which asserts manufacturers have restricted access to key repair information, thereby hindering competition. The ability to diagnose, service and repair a motor vehicle is essential to the safety and well-being of U.S. automotive consumers, who are entitled to choose where they will have their cars and trucks repaired, the bill states.

In fairness to automakers, care would be taken to protect their trade secrets and prevent upsetting warranty agreements. And there would be no interference with regulation of emission diagnostic systems.

Small businesses, Merrill said, just want a system that is fair for all. “We are not looking for a competitive advantage over the manufacturers or dealers, we just want to be able to serve our customers and run our businesses.”

The Clean Air Act’s bureaucratic stone wall that blocks competition, dents consumer’s wallets and threatens the survivability of thousands of small repair shops must be removed before it causes a serious crash.

–Jack Faris is the president of NFIB (the National Federation of Independent Business), the nation’s largest small-business advocacy group. A non-profit, non-partisan organization founded in 1943, NFIB represents the consensus views of its 600,000 members in Washington, D.C., and all 50 state capitals. More information is available on-line at www.NFIB.org