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driving concerns

I get maintenance done on my SUV at an independent mechanic instead of at the dealership. I discovered years ago that I don’t need to get service done by the dealer to keep the warranty valid – I just have to go to a licensed mechanic. I’ve had the same mechanic for years because I know he won’t recommend work my car doesn’t need. I’m thinking about getting a new SUV and he said he might not be able to do work on it because some newer cars won’t let mechanics access all the diagnostic information. Should I be worried?

Tim, Oshawa, Ont.


Technically, you can get your car serviced or repaired anywhere you like.

But technologically, that’s getting tougher, industry experts said.

“We’re seeing an erosion of the level of access,” said Jean-François Champagne, president of the Automotive Industries Association of Canada (AIA), which represents the automotive aftermarket. “We’re seeing mechanics unable to complete full repairs because the information is unavailable or wirelessly transmitted to automakers.”

Since 1996, all gas-powered vehicles have been required by law to have a standard onboard diagnostics (OBD-II) port that your mechanic can plug into to access information about your car.

But that doesn’t mean that independent mechanics can use that port to access all the systems they need to fix your car, said George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association (APA), a subscription-based automotive industry watchdog.

Since the law was made in the nineties, many more systems on your car, including climate control, lights and even wipers, have become computerized.

“If an automaker wants to restrict access, they can provide the port with the limited number of functions defined [in the nineties] but require special tools and software to access applications that go beyond the minimum requirement,” Iny said.

Not an app for that?

For instance, BMW requires a special tool to reset the oil service reminder after an oil change, Iny said. Your dealer would have it, but an independent shop might not.

Whether it’s steering, transmission, sensors and safety features or even a power window, many repairs aren’t possible without special software that automakers might not share.

“For the longest time fixing a window was purely mechanical – then it became electric and now its software,” AIA Canada’s Champagne said. “I might be able to replace a door handle but it won’t physically work without the software.”

Zero-emissions cars, including battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (HCEVs), aren’t required to have an OBD-II port. Most, including the Nissan Leaf, still use them. But Teslas, for instance, use their own ports.

The problem isn’t only that cars are getting more complicated. Over the next few years – starting with high-end luxury vehicles – cars will send more and more diagnostic information wirelessly to automakers over the internet, Champagne said.

That means your mechanic might not have the data needed to figure out what’s wrong with your car.

While your dealership does repairs covered under your car’s warranty, you’re free to get your car serviced at any licensed mechanic as long as you get the service done at the time, or mileage, stated in the manual.

But if your car has been in a crash, you’d go to an independent repair shop. Or if your warranty has expired, you can choose an independent shop for repairs.

“Thirty per cent of Canadians go to an aftermarket repair shop,” Champagne said. “Our concern is that automakers will be able to dictate where you can get your car serviced.”

That could mean that you’ll pay more, Champagne said. Repairs and service can cost less at an independent mechanic, Champagne said. For instance, an independent shop might be able to find cheaper replacement parts that aren’t made by the original automaker.

“It could cost $17,000 to fix a Tesla – where an independent could do it for a sliver of that cost,” Champagne said.

Right to repair?

Independent mechanics find ways around an automaker’s roadblocks – sometimes starting with just a Google search, said Steve Elder, an automotive instructor at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT).

“There are people hacking this stuff left, right and centre,” Elder said. “Even with a Tesla, which uses very proprietary software – in five minutes online, you can find and order an adapter that will plug into your laptop.”

While mechanics are “resourceful people and will find ways to repair these cars,” the extra legwork means repairs take longer and could cost more, Champagne said.

Champagne said Canada needs a right-to-repair law that guarantees that automakers make software and diagnostic information available to independent shops. It would let you get your car maintained or repaired anywhere you like.

“Our preference is a federal act instead of provincial laws,” Champagne said. “We service cars the same way from one province to the other.”

In the United States, Massachusetts has had a right to repair law since 2012. Last year, voters there overwhelmingly approved amending the law to make automakers give consumers and mechanics access to all data necessary for repairs – including data that’s sent wirelessly to the automakers.

In July, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to draft new rules requiring manufacturers to make it easier for consumers and independent repair shops to fix products. It’s still not clear whether carmakers will be included in the rules.

Even if Canada doesn’t pass its own right to repair law, “Canadian repair shops and consumers [could] benefit anyway,” if the U.S. implements its own rules, the APA’s Iny said.

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