The issue, brewing for decades but on the boil as technology becomes more driven by electronics that demand sophisticated knowledge and equipment, was reiterated at last week’s Autocare Convention hosted by the Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association (AAAA).
Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) chairman Rod Sims told the convention that the watchdog would assist in the development of a mandatory scheme for AAAA members to get access to the technical information needed to fix cars “and to compete”.
“We want to drive reform to ensure the automotive industry remains competitive and fair to consumers and businesses alike,” he told the convention.
“In the case of the Australian automotive market, there is a strong case for change and particularly as it relates to car servicing.”
It has been backed by the federal government, with assistant minister to the treasurer Michael Sukkar MP stating in his address at the Autocare 2018 conference that the proposed scheme would “ensure competition and fairness for Australian consumers”.
“I am here at the opening of Autocare 2018 to assure you that this is definitely a priority for the government,” he said.
AAAA executive director Stuart Charity said efforts to make data sharing mandatory in the Australian automotive aftermarket industry “have never been stronger”.
“Both Minister Sukkar and Mr Sims’ speeches reflect their commitment to developing the reforms that will protect 16 million Australian car owners along with their freedom of choice in selecting their automotive repairer,” he said at the conference.
“After the comments made today in front of hundreds of AAAA members, it is very clear that we are nearing the end of the road to gaining a mandatory code for our industry.”
Mr Sims, whose parents in the 1950s ran Sims Motors car dealership and repair centre in Lorne and where he spent 10 years of his childhood, said earlier automotive eras were confined to mechanical repair and servicing but today “you practically need a degree in computer engineering to repair a vehicle”.
“Today’s new cars contain in excess of 10 million lines of computer code – more code than is used to operate the avionics and on-board support systems of modern airliners – to create the sophisticated software that they require to work,” he said.
“In a sense, you don’t really drive cars anymore: you drive computers.”
He said that to fix modern cars, repairers need access to volumes of complex technical information that is held in digital form by the car manufacturers.
“This, however, allows car manufacturers to control who has access to the technical information needed to fix cars, often favouring their own dealer and preferred repairer networks over independent repairers,” Mr Sims said.
The sharing of technical information between OEMs and independent workshops has been an unresolved issue that became close to being ratified in 2014.
To ensure a working relationship between independent repairers and the OEMs, a heads of agreement was signed in 2014 between the AAAA, Australian Automotive Dealers Association (AADA), the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI, representing the OEMs) and the Australian Automobile Association (AAA).
But complaints persisted. Mr Sims said when the ACCC looked into these complaints, it found numerous problems.
“When we looked into this issue as part of our new car retailing market study, we found numerous problems with the detail and timeliness of the information given by car manufacturers to independent repairers, despite their voluntary commitments,” he said.
He said that the ACCC found:
- Only certain car manufacturers appeared to be providing access to a significant proportion of the types of technical information independent repairers need to repair and service new cars.
- Our ACCC technical expert was unable to register as an Australian independent repairer to access information from a particular car manufacturer’s online platform. The only way of obtaining the necessary programming information to complete the repair was to seek assistance from an authorised dealer. Being reliant on a direct competitor for information can never work.
- In other cases, car manufacturers stated technical information was available from their dealers, however their dealers refused to provide the requested information.
- We also observed that some car manufacturers only started providing independent repairers with access to their online technical websites during the course of the ACCC’s market study.
“Our technical expert identified that, with some brands, gaining access to the information could take up to two weeks,” Mr Sims said.
“We consider that timely access to repair and service information is critical for independent repairers to remain competitive.”
Mr Sims said that despite the voluntary commitments, many car manufacturers still did not provide online access to technical information and that these included several large brands.
“Further, of those car manufacturers that are sharing technical information, some restrict independent repairers’ access to environmental, safety or security-related technical information due to perceived risks of increased car thefts or unauthorised modifications,” he said.
“This limits the use of the information, and the type of repairs that can be undertaken.
“We understand that in the European Union and the United States, appropriate safeguards have been developed to share securely these types of information with vetted independent repairers, so it can be done.”
Mr Sims said the ACCC has formed the view that few car-makers provided equivalent access to the technical information provided to their authorised dealers and preferred repairer networks.
“This was inconsistent with what the car manufacturers had committed to voluntarily under the heads of agreement.
“On this basis, we concluded that voluntary commitments to share technical information had not been successful and would not work.
“Indeed, it is not surprising that manufacturers do not wish to share information with independent repairers when they have incentives to drive consumers to dealerships instead.
“Accordingly, we recommended a mandatory scheme to share technical information with independent repairers on ‘commercially fair and reasonable terms’. This should include real-time access and appropriate safeguards to enable the sharing of environmental, safety and security-related technical information.”
The ACCC’s recommendation that a mandatory scheme should be introduced in Australia for car manufacturers to share technical service and repair information is now a matter for government policy consideration.
The inaugural Autocare Convention last week in Sydney’s Darling Harbour attracted thousands of automotive mechanics, technicians, business owners and support staff.
They joined more than 100 of the industry’s biggest companies and 50 convention speakers over the two-day event.
By Neil Dowling