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Right to repair: Technology threatens independent suppliers

The growing use of electronic control systems in modern vehicles is leading to concerns among independent aftermarket suppliers for their future prosperity.

Parts manufacturers are heavily reliant on sales of replacement components to the aftermarket. This sector accounts for most of their profit, often supporting the barely-profitable supply of their OE parts to car-makers during the assembly process.

But the days of independent garages being able to replace worn or faulty parts on the majority of the car parc are numbered, according to many experts in the aftermarket.

Vehicle manufacturers are adopting increasingly complex electronic architecture in order to allow pairs of cables to carry multiple digital signals from system sensors to electronic control units, rather than rely on hundreds of metres of individual wiring, known as CAN (Controlled Area Network)-bus.

However, it means that once-simple tasks such as engine component replacement or a battery change can include a need for diagnostic equipment and reset codes.

Dave Garrett, director of the Garage Equipment Association, says: “This is a worrying issue for the aftermarket. Independent repairers are already missing out on servicing many vehicles because they can’t stand the cost of accessing the required technical information from all vehicle manufacturers.

“This will have a knock-on effect for garage equipment suppliers if fewer independents are in business, and component manufacturers are worried about their aftermarket parts sales drying up in future.”

By the turn of the decade, CAN-bus enabled vehicles will account for around half the car parc. This means that independent repairers will need to invest in diagnostic equipment and technical information to interrogate and re-programme ECUs.

Vehicles fitted with an electronic parking brake now require diagnostic equipment to release the motors in order to change brake pads.

The European Commission has stipulated that all vehicle manufacturers must make equipment and technical information available to independent repairers.

However, carmakers may charge for the information. General Motors Europe charges from s4 per hour to s3,700 per year for access to its technical information website, TIS2Web. DaimlerChrysler has set charges from s4 per hour to s1,239 per year.

Fiat’s fee is from s3 per hour to s3,356 for yearly access, plus an addition s134 per month for updates. Toyota charges s3 Euros per hour to s2,400 per year.

“The vehicle assemblers are making it more and more difficult for the independent repairers to diagnose and fix faults on vehicles,” says Jim Mazza, chairman of the UK strategy group of the Right To Repair Campaign (R2RC), on its website.

R2RC is a lobbying initiative founded this year by Europe-wide trade association FIGIEFA. Its role is to voice the independent aftermarket’s fears about competition, prior to the 2010 Block Exemption revision.

Fellow strategy group member David Russell, of Camberley Autofactors, says it is a pan-European issue. He adds: “While our suppliers have the ability to manufacture the quality parts required and the independent diagnostic tools to use on modern vehicles, without data our customers could be driven out of business.”

Russell says another part of the problem is that the European Commission does not stipulate access to information for independent diagnostic equipment manufacturers. This leaves independent all-makes garages facing having to buy bespoke equipment for each car marque. “This is the first time that the whole of the independent aftermarket industry has come together as a unified voice. That demonstrates how serious this issue is,” he says.

It’s an issue taken seriously by the franchised dealer sector too. With the increasing investment being made by franchised networks in technology, showrooms and training, carmakers are expected to lobby hard in Europe to protect the service market for their dealers.

Massey takes up independents’ cause

Frank Massey, a leading UK vehicle diagnostics expert, is concerned for the future of independent repairers, and has joined Euro Car Parts to spearhead a sales push in the diagnostics field.

Massey will head ECP’s newly created diagnostics division, which aims to help independent garages with the technical challenges they face with modern vehicles. He has retained his garage business in Preston, Automotive Diagnostic Solutions, which will continue to trade independently under the management of his family.

Massey, a Fellow of the Institute of the Motor Industry and the UK’s first ATA Master Technician, regularly hosts training seminars and has produced training DVDs for the repair industry.

He said: “The independent garage is facing unprecedented technical challenges. It will be my mission to help them continue to provide affordable motoring to the UK public by offering a total solution comprising the best diagnostic products and software, combined with training, technical support and marketing packages.”

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