OBD II Legislation Stirs up Conflict in California

OBD protestors

In a massive show of protest against anti-competitive practices by car companies and their franchised dealers, consumer groups, small business owners, and trade associations rallied at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Jan. 10. Activists distributed fliers urging show attendees to support SB 1146, state legislation that would ensure access to on-board diagnostics (OBD) II standards for independent service providers and parts manufacturers.

Featuring a team of tow trucks circling the area with disabled cars in tow, and a vehicle wrapped in chains, protestors wanted to make a powerful statement about what will happen should the current California OBD II rules remain unchallenged. "AAIA hopes that the demonstration will send a strong signal to the state legislature that California car owners want a choice in where they obtain service for their vehicle," said Aaron Lowe, vice president of government affairs at the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association (AAIA). Howard Owens, executive director, Consumer Federation of California, mirrored Lowe's sentiment. "It's time to put California consumers, not car makers, back in the driver's seat of their own cars," Owens said.

OBD II systems have been a standard feature on new cars and trucks since 1996. The systems control all emissions-related parts and components. Each manufacturer calibrates their OBD II systems differently, sometimes even using different codes for different models. Thus, the research and development involved in reverse-engineering parts that are compatible with the computer software could take years, and put many independent parts manufacturers out of business. More than 57,000 jobs are at stake, and consumers will be faced with a $17 billion increase in maintenance costs over the next ten years if the car companies succeed in blocking access to the OBD II codes.

"When 70 percent of consumers choose to go to independent repair shops after their warranties expire, that sends a strong message that we need to preserve competition in car repairs," stated Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability & Safety (CARS). CARS is a member of the California Consumer Choice Coalition, a consumer advocacy group in which AAIA plays a lead role.

"While there is strong dealer opposition to this legislation, I am optimistic of our chances to obtain enactment of this bill if the aftermarket industry in California continues to make their voices heard," Lowe said. "I am also hopeful because of the strong support we have received from state aftermarket groups, the auto clubs of northern and southern California, and the enthusiastic backing of consumer groups."

Senate bill 1146, authored by Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, ensures access to the information and tools necessary to provide service and develop compatible parts for OBD II systems. The bill recognizes the needs of auto manufacturers to protect legitimate proprietary and trade secret information. The California Air Resources Board is slated to act as a neutral third-party in determining which information is necessary to disclose. SB 1146 also allows vehicle manufacturers to obtain fair and reasonable compensation from aftermarket companies for the cost of providing the required information.

SB 1146 passed by a large margin (34-6) in the California State Senate, and enjoyed bi-partisan support. The bill must now go before the state Assembly, where it will be subject to another round of review and discussion. California Consumer Choice is collecting petitions across the state, and urging constituents to contact state lawmakers as well as California Governor Cray Davis to show support for SB 1146.

"Since California's emissions standards are among the most stringent in the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency tends to adopt their regulations into federal policy. Thus, the California decision could have a sweeping impact on the entire aftermarket industry," Lowe said.

"Regulations that ensure properly-functioning vehicle emissions systems are important to California's efforts to achieve better air quality-a goal we all support-but the problem is in the fine print. The Consumer Choice Bill, SB 1146, is aimed specifically at reforming the provisions in OBD rules that are anti-competitive, anti-consumer and anti-environment," said Jim O'Neill, owner of Chino Auto Tech, an independent full-service repair shop.

By refusing to make critical computer interface codes available to the aftermarket industry, auto manufacturers are creating a monopoly on the repair and maintenance of most vehicles on the road today. Trade associations, consumer groups and independent auto parts and service providers need to support open OBD II standards.

For more information about OBD II, visit the California Consumer Choice Web site at http://www.cccauto.org/obd.htm.

Click here for other Online Stories