Right to Repair: Inside the movement fighting for all consumers
Wally Dingman hates having to turn away customers. It’s what’s kept him in the auto repair business for 40 years.
Like the 371,000 Canadians working in the aftermarket industry, Dingman is more than qualified to repair a vehicle. Yet, in the modern age of repair, just knowing how to do so is not enough.
“Every day it’s getting more difficult to carry out repairs,” Dingman said. “Our scan tools and our repair software have limited access to information because it’s being withheld by the manufacturers.”
Dingman owns Caughill Automotive in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. His shop is one of 10 aftermarket repair shops that service the town of just under 10,000.
As vehicles become more digitized, so, too, become the tools required to diagnose a vehicle for a repair. Older vehicle models would provide information directly to a technician, so long as they have a tool to access the On-Board Diagnostic port, whereas newer models share certain information only with the dealer.
The problem? Dealers aren’t in turn sharing that information with the aftermarket. It has put in jeopardy a $15.7 billion aftermarket industry, a cornerstone of Canadian society for decades.
This is where the Right to Repair movement comes into play.
It pushes for the aftermarket to be given complete access to the information and technology needed to service a vehicle.
Dealers say they primarily restrict access based on copyright and security concerns. In Canada, you aren’t legally permitted to bypass a ‘Technological Protective Measure’ (TPM).
TPMs are also known as the ‘digital locks’ that keep diagnostic information hidden.
“It’s a competitive market to start with, and you’re at a disadvantage because you cannot access enough information to do the repair,” Dingman said.
But Anthony Rosborough thinks the copyright argument is being misused by automotive manufacturers.
He is a Canadian intellectual property (IP) lawyer, currently at the European University Institute.
“The reason we have created these types of laws is to incentivize artistic and innovative production,” Rosborough said. “So, if you’re using that kind of a system to say, ‘We have an absolute right to lock down the device that you own for cybersecurity,’ how does that fit with copyright?”
This has created difficulties for local repair shops, as gaps in information create obstacles for technicians like Emily Chung. She owns autoNiche in Markham, Ont.
A recent pain she experienced was when she tried to program immobilizer codes for the anti-theft system on a Honda Odyssey. Honda’s website permits the aftermarket to purchase access to an immobilizer code, but only for U.S. vehicles.
“If I have an American car, I can get the code,” Chung said. “I don’t see why I can get it for American cars, but not Canadian cars.”
To install immobilizer codes on a Honda manufactured in Canada, technicians must send their customers to a dealer. However, the same model of car manufactured in the U.S. can be serviced by an aftermarket technician.
“This is the challenge that we face as technicians,” Chung said. “If you were on the receiving end of that news as a client with a Honda product, I wouldn’t imagine this being okay.”
Global News contacted Honda to understand why this is the case, but it did not provide a statement.
Monopolistic control over aspects of repair will negatively impact Canadians, says Alana Baker, senior director of Government Relations at the Automotive Industries Association, the trade association representing the Canadian aftermarket industry.
“Consumers today are faced with record high levels of cost-of-living expenses, from gas to groceries and everything in between,” Baker said.
“This really comes down to consumer protection, consumer choice, and accessibility, ensuring that they have continued access to affordable, reliable and essential vehicle service and repair.”
As difficult as it may be for the aftermarket, there is a system to protect their interests. The Canadian Automotive Service Information Standard (CASIS) agreement was a voluntary agreement between the aftermarket industry and Canadian automobile manufacturers.
Signed in 2009, this agreement pledged for manufacturers to volunteer information to the automotive sector. But due to the voluntary nature of CASIS, there is no obligation for manufacturers to participate.
Brian Kingston, president and CEO of the Canadian Vehicle Manufacturers Association (CVMA), says CASIS is working as intended. The CVMA was one of three signatories of CASIS in 2009.
“The agreement holds up very well, and that’s because we continuously engage with the aftermarket,” Kingston said. “General Motors and Stellantis, they’re leaders when it comes to providing vehicle repair information.”
This has resulted in brands like Tesla opting out of sharing information with the aftermarket which sets a worrying precedent for electric vehicles (EVs). With the federal government mandate to have all new vehicles go zero-emission by 2035, Canadians are bound to see more EVs on the streets.
“I can’t speak to what specific manufacturers do, but what we would like to see done is see other OEMs sign on and become signatories to the CASIS agreement,” Kingston said.
CASIS came into effect when one could have predicted the future implications of TPMs and EVs. But what worked in 2009 hasn’t been updated for the modern era.
“CASIS was not built for a wireless world that we’re living in today,” Baker said. “We need to bring it up to date so that they can keep pace with the rapid advancements in technology.”
“CASIS goes beyond what any IP statute in Canada would allow. It treats things as proprietary that no regime of IP in Canada currently recognizes,” Rosborough said. “Not all parts, tools and information can be protected by patents or copyright, but CASIS treats them as the property of the manufacturer.”
Federal budget addresses ‘right to repair’ rules
Becoming an automotive technician is harder than ever before, given the current restrictions on repair. And that’s a problem given the challenge to attract people to this field.
Across all sectors, Canada is seeing a skilled labour shortage. Statistics Canada data show the ratio of new hires to vacancies at 33.6 per cent in the first quarter of 2022.
“If we’re already struggling to find skilled labour now, we are making it even more segmented,” Chung said.
In addition to owning her own shop, Chung teaches her trade at Georgian College. Her fears are for the next generation of technicians.
“There’s nothing to motivate the next generation to say ‘let’s build this trade together,’” Chung said.
“I’m still young enough, and if there was more hope in the industry, I would probably scale up a bit and hire a second or third mechanic if I could find one,” Dingman said. “But the reality is, you have to deal with what you’re dealt and the most comfortable spot for me at this point is to downsize.”