Car Servicing Fair Go Failure

How the battle for independent car servicing is being lost in Australia

You know the difference between Donald Trump and Australia? Donald Trump is only, at this stage, talking about building a wall. In Australia, the wall is already built. But instead of keeping out those filthy, murdering, drug-dealing Mexican rapists (Mr Trump’s characterisation, not mine) the Australian wall is designed to keep out independent tradesmen - mechanics, auto-electricians, and other vehicle repairers.

The Aussie wall is very effective, and if you own a car Down Under, it costs you plenty.

Here’s how the car industry plays dirty, under the hood.

Anti-competitive Acts: The Push to Drive Independent Tradies Out

Car companies are self-evidently sociopathic bastards. Collectively, that’s how they roll. Everything else is just marketing fluff. Here in Australia the car industry is systematically at war with independent repairers. Carmakers deliberately stack the deck to drive those independent tradesmen out of business. It’s disgraceful. And whether you know it or not - this government sanctioned industrial bullying costs you a bomb, every time you service your car.

You would not stand for this: Here’s the basic problem. Let’s say you buy a watch. Like this Casio GWG-1000 (right). It’s a complex device - tells the time, knows where north is, solves differential equations, etc. Let’s say the battery goes flat, so you take it to the nearest watchmaker. He replaces the battery and you look at the itemised bill. Twenty bucks for the battery, $30 for labour, $30 for a pressure test … and $200 for shipping the watch back to Casio to be reinitialised.

I’m sorry?

The watchmaker explains that, when you remove the battery, the computer system in the watch goes into limbo, and when you re-boot it, it need a special six-digit PIN code, and only CASIO has that code. They will not give it to him over the phone, so he has to ship the watch to and from Casio, and they charge him $150 for the code. This seems unfair. I doubt you’d stand for it. 

Codes of Conduct

Casio doesn’t do this, of course - but the car industry certainly does. They do it routinely. Researching this story opened the floodgates on a tsunami of this underhanded car industry extortionist bullshit. Here’s a real example: A 2005 Mazda3. The power steering ECU fails. That’s the little black box with some firmware in it, and all it does is plug into the car’s controller area network and tell the power steering assistance system how hard to help you turn the steering wheel, in all kinds of driving situations. The owner knows the steering’s on the fritz so she takes it to the local independent mechanic. The mechanic diagnoses the problem. He buys a new ECU, from Mazda. So the local Mazda dealer gets a win - they’re the only place selling that part. Our hero the mechanic plugs it in, but it won’t boot up without a PIN code. And neither Mazda, nor the dealer that sold the part will provide that code - arseholes - so the mechanic has to pay an additional fee to that dealer to receive the magic number. And you know who ultimately pays that bill, right?

Often in these situations, the car has to be towed to a dealership, just to be plugged in, to handshake with a server in - I dunno - Detroit, or Japan, or Germany. We’re at the point where there are 17 million vehicles on Australian roads. They all get serviced and repaired. Under the hood, the industry is at the point where, for example, those new electronic log books cannot be validated after a service by independent repairers - even though it’s anti-competitive and illegal to act to exclude independent repairers - and in some cases they’re even preventing local mechanics from knowing which oil to use in particular vehicles. If that’s not anti-competitive, what frigging is?

Your Right to Choose a Repairer

You have an ironclad right to choose who services and repairs your car. It’s a right, as a consumer. You purchased that car. It belongs to you. You are not in a partnership with the manufacturer. It’s your car. And competition is very healthy for all markets - especially the market for servicing and repairing vehicles, because dealerships do not have the capacity to service all of Australia’s vehicles. Proper competition keeps the price fair - and everyone wins.

See also:
Can I get my car serviced by an independent mechanic? >>

Intellectual Property - What Really Needs Protecting?

On the flipside, to be absolutely fair, carmakers have a right to protect their intellectual property - in other words, they don’t have to open the floodgates and hand over all the proprietary design data. But - to be perfectly clear - the only data that really needs protecting is the data that would allow anyone who feels so inclined to reverse-engineer any particular car, or one of its key systems. That seems fair.

But this right to protect IP does not extend to withholding critical service, repair and safety information. Because you can’t reverse-engineer an engine by knowing what kind of oil it drinks, or by filling in some poor bastard’s electronic logbook. Or by providing an unlock code. Charging hundreds of dollars - an entirely arbitrary fee - for a six-digit number, effectively extorting you for an unlock code - seems to me in no way related to the cost of producing, archiving or delivering that code. Doing business like that has all the underlying dignity of a Nigerian internet scam.

The Overseas Solution

We have laws about this. There’s a clear philosophical regulatory intent to prevent this kind of conduct, and yet this is exactly what is occurring today in Australia. And you’re paying for it. There’s actual legislation to prevent carmakers behaving in this way in the EU and in the USA - but there are no such laws here in Australia. So let’s talk about what happens in those less retarded societies.

The solution to this problem exists. We can buy it off the shelf. No need to develop anything. No research required. Overseas, carmakers make the data available to repairers via the portal. Diagnostics, specifications (like what oil to use, you arseholes), software patches, technical service bulletins (they’re like silent recalls that only dealers know about) - it’s all there, online. Repairers pay a reasonable fee to access the portal - so it’s not a gift; it’s a business. This slashes the cost and the time it takes to to diagnose the problem, implement the fix, and get your car back on the road. The solution is right in front of us - we could implement it in a matter of weeks - because it already works in the USA and Europe. You just need an internet connection and login credentials, because the data is already waiting, in the cloud. And we need legislation. There is that.

Australia's Regulatory Deficiency

This solution does not happen in the absence of regulation. Because, left to their own devices, carmakers are anti-competitive arseholes. In fact, overseas, there’s never been a voluntary data-sharing arrangement between carmakers and independents. In Europe and the USA legislation was required to make this work equitably. And it’s fine to suggest that the data thing is a recent development, automotively - but that’s bullshit too. Remember that PIN code example at the start of this report? That was a 2005 Mazda3 - last time I looked, that was 11 years ago. The use-by date on ‘it’s a new thing’ has expired.

We have a whole government department allegedly dedicated to fair competition in markets. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the ACCC. What a joke - the great Gummy Bear of corporate regulation. Chaired by Rod Sims - a man who seems to me virtually dedicated to giving the car industry a free pass to act like complete anticompetitive arseholes any time they want. To breach Australian Consumer Law at will. Not to disparage space, which I’ve always admired, principally because nobody can hear you scream in it, but Rod Sims seems to me to be a complete waste of space on the issue of carmakers. Highly paid, too. A protected species, perhaps. The ACCC just says: ‘Nothing we can do about this’. Ineffective arseholes.

See also: How the ACC & Australian Consumer Law Fails New Car Buyers - and What You Can Do About It >>

The Minister for Setting Up Small Business

And just when you thought the waste of not-to-be-disparaged space couldn’t get any bigger, let’s meet the minister: The Honourable Kelly O’Dwyer, MP. Federal minister for small business. If anyone should be on the front foot with this, championing the needs of independent repairers across Australia - because of the small matter of 50,000 jobs being at stake in this sector - surely it’s Ms O’Dwyer.

Unfortunately, The Honourable Ms O’Dwyer is one of those new junior-burger cabinet ministers, recently appointed by our spectacularly out of touch Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. Ms O’Dwyer is a 39-year-old lawyer who’s never really been anything but a lawyer or a political adviser or an executive at the National Australia Bank. And now she’s a cabinet minister because …  democracy. And what a breathtaking wealth of small business experience to bring to that portfolio. Kelly O’Dwyer is exactly the type of person I detest calling the shots. What a fantastic world it would be if we put lawyers in charge of everything. Perhaps unsurprisingly she appears to me to be breathtakingly useless intervening on this issue, if the delivery of fairness is the yardstick of success. If there is a pub-test on this, Kelly O’Dwyer: you just failed.

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Arseholes

Perhaps this failure is because Ms O’Dwyer gets gets her background information on this issue from the grandiose-sounding Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries (FCAI). The car industry’s lobby group. If you buy into that name, it almost sounds as if the Federal Chamber were handed some imprimatur to operate by God, or at the very least Her Royal Highness Elizabeth Regina the Second. But the reality of the FCAI is very different. The FCAI is a vile, anti-consumer agency that purports independent legitaimacy under false pretences, funded by the car industry, and its purpose is exclusively to disseminate weapons-grade bullshit up and down the halls of Parliament House.

If I’m assessing this situation correctly, much of that enterically fermented bovine digestive dissemination appears to be making its way across Kelly O’Dwyer’s desk. You’d think someone with a law degree, entrusted with a cabinet position (and she’s also the Assistant Treasurer under that God-botherer Scott Morrison) you’d presume she’d be smart enough to know not to bother asking the car industry’s lobby group if the car industry is perhaps behaving badly. You know, she could alternatively consider - suggestion from left-field - actually getting off her ministerial arse and visiting a small independent automotive repair business and asking, you know, pertinent questions (which is coincidentally exactly what I did to research this report). Because the FCAI has the soul of Darth Vader and the approximate moral compass of Kim Jong Un - the only world leader who still thinks it’s pretty cool to wear a wig woven from the pubic hair of state-sanctioned sacrificed virgins ... or maybe not (below).

You know the online dat portal that would solve this problem? (The National Automotive Service Task Force, above.) You get locked out if you try to access it from Australia. But in those countries where it does function, it doesn’t even cost the government any money. It’s entirely self-funding. The independent subscribers pay for not only the portal, but also an independent umpire to make sure both teams play by the rules. And carmaker intellectual property - the valuable stuff, not the engine oil specifications - is protected. Look up National Automotive Service Task Force on Google - that’s the US portal. There's an equivalent for the EU, too.

Typically an annual subscription - per brand - is about $2000. Daily subscriptions are also available. Twenty-four hours’ access per brand costs between $10-$30. That seems fair. It’s a pretty special kind of minister who can’t get a zero-cost solution on the table, especially one that epitomises fairness and protects jobs inside that core ‘small business’ portfolio, to rectify an issue that affects every single Australian, especially with an election looming. Well done, Kelly O’Dwyer. I’m certain there’s a big future in politics for you.

What You Should Do

So, here’s what I suggest you do: If you care about this issue because you care about the 2000 businesses and the 50,000 jobs under siege here, if you care about the independent bloke on the corner currently being upended in the showers by the car industry, with an election looming, now is the right time to complain. But maybe you’re a bit more self-centred. So let me draw you this diagram: It’s really you in the showers, grabbing your ankles, not the mechanic. The car industry extorts the local bloke for the PIN code to unlock that new ECU. Who do you think ultimately wears that cost? Do you feel a little discomfort below the waist now? Because that’s the car industry sliding it into you. Ultimately the consumer picks up the tab. Not nice, is it? Independent repairers are seven or eight times bigger as a group than car dealerships, collectively. Authorised dealerships cannot hope to handle all the servicing and repair work in the nation. They’re just acting like bastards for fun and profit.

Thanks to the hi-tech miracles of e-mail, Facebook and Twitter, Kelly O’Dwyer is accessible to you, 24/7. Take a moment to let her know exactly what you think of the outstanding job she’s apparently doing on this. Perhaps you might also let her know exactly how well she fits into this world-stage-embarrassment, Jethro and Cletus, thought-bubble-inspired, intellectually impoverished, hillbilly cabinet ministry, up on Walton Mountain. And don’t forget to tell Kelly O’Dwyer I said hi.

Contact Kelly O'Dwyer now on:

Worst Carmakers

The AAAA says the worst carmakers to deal with on this issue are Mitsubishi, Ford, Isuzu, Land Rover, Volvo, Volkswagen, Toyota, Peugeot, Mercedes-Benz, Kia, Jeep, BMW, Audi and Alfa-Romeo. It’s quite a few, and something for you to consider if you’re in the market for a new car now - the bend-over-and-be-serviced factor. If grabbing your ankles appeals.