Leader of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, Senator Ricky Muir, and the Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association (AAAA) have launched a draft for a mandatory code of conduct that is aimed at giving independent repairers access to technical service and repair data from manufacturers.
Under the current voluntary scheme, many of the major auto brands in Australia have been withholding technical information from independent repairers, forcing customers to have the vehicles serviced and repaired at dealer service centres, which not only could be more expensive and inconvenient, but also could eventually wipe out many of the workshops that provide these services.
Many independent workshops are blocked from access to basic data such as what blend of oil a specific vehicle requires, or how to interpret fault codes.
Since 2009, the AAAA - which represents around 25,000 automotive businesses - has been campaigning for these independent mechanical and crash repairers to be granted access to the same technical data that manufacturers provide to their dealer service centres, on a fee for service basis.
Without access to this data, tens-of-thousands of independent and family-owned businesses cannot perform maintenance and repairs on customers’ vehicles, which could potentially put them out of business in a few years time should the government not intervene.
This would severely affect rural areas, for example, where taking your car to the manufacturer’s nearest service centre requires commuting to the next major city. Many of these communities rely on their local independent workshop so that they don’t have to travel for hours to the city for a scheduled service.
Above: Stuart Charity speaking at this week's press conference
At a press conference this week - days before the federal election - Senator Muir announced a draft for the proposed mandatory Automotive Repair Code of Practice - which he created in collaboration with the AAAA - based on a similar model adopted by the US automotive industry.
Senator Muir believes that the current voluntary model is just not enough, and hopes that the new code of conduct will be passed as legislation not only to protect automotive businesses, but also to continue giving customers the choice to have their vehicle serviced and repaired where they want to have it serviced and repaired - not to where the manufacturer forces you to go.
“As vehicles become more sophisticated with each new model, particularly with the increasing number of computer systems on board, the access to codes and special tools is vital to keep them safe,” Muir said.
“By withholding technical information from independent repairers, the powerful vehicle manufacturers are manipulating the service and repair market.”
Stuart Charity, executive director at the AAAA also spoke at the briefing, presenting a Vehicle Data Sharing Federal Election Scorecard, which listed the policy commitments on vehicle data sharing received from five political parties; the Greens, Labor Party, Motoring Enthusiast Party, Liberal-National Coalition and the Nick Xenophon Team.
Of these five parties, four - including the Liberal party - have stated that a mandatory code is on their respective agendas.
Charity said that manufacturers have tried to mislead the government by making false claims.
“The vehicle makers deny that there’s a problem. They tell the government ‘all the data is out there’. The truth is that only information the vehicle makers are prepared to share is made available,” he said.
“Their offerings do not include critical diagnostic information that allows independent workshops to interpret fault codes, turn off the check-engine light, to identify the correct blend of oil, to access a PIN code to reinstall a new component, and to download the latest software update for the car’s computer system.”
“Car companies also told the government independent repairers want the data for free, this is also not true. Workshops are prepared to pay a fair commercial price, but they need all the data that dealers get,” Charity added.
Both Senator Muir and Charity drew comparisons to the framework set up in Europe and the US, where many of the manufacturers that do not provide technical data here in Australia are legally required to do so international markets.
“Australian independent workshops want nothing more and nothing less than the same data that these same car companies share through mandatory schemes in Europe, Canada and the USA,” said Charity.
Looking forward, Senator Muir hopes to be re-elected this weekend’s election so he can continue campaigning for the code of practice to come into effect - requiring all 68 vehicle brands on Australian roads are held accountable to a mandatory code - as opposed to the current voluntary agreement that only a handful of brands have decided to comply with.
“[The] government must act now to protect consumer choice. As technology advances and more customers’ cars are driven to dealerships, small family-owned workshops will close. There will be less competition. There will be less choice of repairer,” he said.
When asked about a timeframe for the implementation of the new code, Charity said that although it’s taken almost nine years to get to this stage, the support of major parties like the Coalition could see a decision made within the next year.
“We’re in the final phase now,” he said, “[if] the Liberal-Coalition returns to power, they’ve said they will announce terms of reference for a final inquiry, within three months of forming government, and that terms of reference would normally go for about three months.”
“You’re probably looking at a decision realistically early next year on whether they announce a mandatory code, and then it will take some time to formulate it.”
“But we’re talking months or a year now, not ten years,” Charity added.
He said that parliament needs to act now while businesses are still alive rather than waiting for all the independent workshops to be wiped out before taking action.
The Victorian Automobile Chamber of Commerce (VACC) has come out in support of the new initiative, highlighting the importance of consumer choice when it comes to who and where they take their vehicles to be maintained and repaired, as most manufacturer's dealer networks cannot service every vehicle on Australia's roads.
"There is a strong argument that consumers should have a right to repair, and that includes being able to choose where their vehicle is serviced and repaired," said a VACC spokesperson.
"It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that vehicle manufacturers and dealers seek to retain as much of the vehicle repair data and associated customer relationships as possible."
"However, dealerships can’t service and repair all of the vehicles in the Australian vehicle fleet, around 17 million, which includes 13 million passenger cars, so independent repairers meet an important need to have vehicles repaired in a timely manner. It is on this basis that broader access to repair information is required across the industry, which includes access by independent repairers," they added.
Both Senator Muir and Charity said that to help the cause, businesses, workers and customers are encouraged to write to their local members of parliament and raise their concerns or complaints to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) so that more first-hand experience can be provided as evidence as to why a code of conduct needs to come into effect.