Corporations are using digital locks to create their own networks—and consumers are fighting back
Story by KATE NG
While repairability in the past was dictated by the tooling at your disposal and your knowledge, digital locks have quickly created an impassible barrier for the average person. A security expert might find workarounds, given enough time and effort—but not many people have the time to become security experts to fix a phone or faulty printer.
This has allowed certain corporations and a considerable number of OEMs to create artificial barriers preventing qualified repairers from accessing their products. The technology and repair know-how are there, but the software stops them, given the risk of “bricking” the product.
In a meeting between the Automotive Industries of Canada (AIA Canada) and policymakers on Oct. 18, association members emphasized how current legal conditions allowed OEMs to consolidate repairs to a limited number of facilities–only their own repair centres have the codes to disable software locks.
This leaves small businesses at the mercy of larger OEMs, who can easily gatekeep repair and diagnostic information. This isn’t an attempt to ensure that only qualified repairers can access the data—case studies and expert testimony suggests this is an effort at market consolidation by larger OEMs. These are a few of the testimonials from industry representatives and individual shops.
WHAT IS THE RIGHT TO REPAIR MOVEMENT?
While the idea of having the option to repair and maintain a product that you own would be common sense in the pre-digital age, this concept has eroded with the advent of digitally based software locks. For all intents and purposes, most commercially installed digital locks were created to deter most consumers from using their software in ways that the OEM did not intend. As you probably know from living in 2022, this can wildly vary from OEMs protecting software source codes to forcing customers to get products repaired directly at the OEM. This has been the landscape in modern consumer rights for the past two decades, with right to repair aiming to update legislations around the world to ensure that customers have the right to choose who repairs their device—whether fixing it themselves, taking it to the OEM, or a third-party shop.
*TIME TO MEND – A RIGHT TO REPAIR TIMELINE
Feb 22, 2021 – Bill C-272 is proposed. If passed, it will allow anyone to bypass program protection and encryption for maintaining, diagnosing and repairing products with embedded protection software.
It also allows for the manufacture, import and provision of devices and components to circumvent said protection measures, as long as the design and use exclusively pertains to diagnosis, maintenance and repairs.
June 2, 2021 – Bill C-272 is accepted by the House of Commons during its second reading.
Sept. 20, 2021 – The 2021 federal election is called. Bill C-272’s development unofficially ceases due to a change in cabinet. Legally, it currently is awaiting a committee consideration.
Feb 4, 2022 – Bill C-231 (44-1) calls for OEMs to make diagnostic and repair information available to independent repairers, in addition to offering service parts.
These must be offered to independent repairers “in the same manner as the manufacturer makes the information and parts available to authorized repair providers.”
A UNIFIED FRONT
AIA Canada is a representative association for Canada’s automotive aftermarket supply chain and service industry and has petitioned for the right to repair as far back as the 2021 federal election.
The organization has heard one clear message from shops since then–OEMs did not voluntarily provide repair information as suggested by information Canadian Automotive Service Information Standards (CASIS), and that legislation making such information mandatory was required.
According to Alana Baker, senior director of government relations with AIA Canada, this is an extremely common problem. On a Zoom call, Alana recalled a case which she says is not uncommon in the slightest. One collision centre AIA spoke with reported having all the tools and software to replace a vehicle’s engine control module on a customer’s Honda but needed the immobilizer code to begin repairs. Upon logging onto the OEM’s official website, they discovered that the code was exclusive to American customers. Essentially, this single line of code meant the repairer could repair a vehicle purchased from an American dealership, but not an identical model sold by a Canadian dealership. Ultimately, the customer was forced to tow their vehicle to a dealer to begin repairs— not only did the business lose a prospective customer and a few hours of work, it also resulted in the OEM poaching said customer and risking the shop’s reputation in the process.
“Despite the independent shop having all the proper equipment, credentials, and knowledge to carry out the repair, stories like these are all too frequent,” Baker explained. “Automakers must share vehicle data with anyone the consumer chooses, which would remove the current practice where many automakers are making it more difficult, more expensive and sometimes impossible to access repair information and tools,” AIA Canada wrote in its press release.
SHOPS AND LOCKS
One repairer with direct experience on regionally locked security codes is Jamie Holmes, co-founder of the Master Mechanic franchise in Ontario. He has years of auto service experience under his belt, specializing in diagnostic systems.
Specifically, he cites Honda and Toyota as examples who’s American models have accessible repair codes for repairers but not Canadian models, despite identical mechanical or diagnostic faults.
Holmes believes that this stems from the desire for OEMs to control the service aftermarket, allowing them to direct customers to OEM repairers, or charge independent auto shops for the privilege of accessing diagnostic information.
While citing the example of a fellow repairer in Toronto who pays $10,000 for a yearly subscription to a diagnostic tool for Mercedes-Benz vehicles, his issue has more to do with the progressive nickle- and-diming that quickly adds up, even with fees that may seem more reasonable at first glance.
“Granted, companies do offer shorter subscriptions, but it’s still $140 or so.” Ultimately, this slow economic bleed hurts small shops the most and will eventually harm the OEM’s reputation through a lacklustre aftermarket service experience.
“OEMs need the aftermarket to be able to fix their vehicles. There was a study done in the 1960s—if you purchased a brand-new car and you weren’t happy with it, there was a chance the client would come back despite the bad experience. When that study was done in the early 2000s, the chances of another purchase was (nearly) zero,” Holmes concludes.
PLEASE TRY AGAIN LATER – BEEP.
It’s not just costs and the potential to lose customers that shops face. Mark Lemay, co-owner of Auto Aide Technical Services, highlights one important point: even if the shop has all the money in the world, OEMs might simply drop the ball on providing shops with their purchased or requested information in a timely manner.
“Around the end of June, we had a car come in, a Mercedes B-200. I went through the application process, which is extremely clunky and off-putting, but I did it all right,” said Mark.
He believes this may stem from OEMs seeing other service shops as competitors, rather than part of the greater aftermarket ecosystem. “I don’t think they have a vested interest in the aftermarket at all, having worked in dealerships at the service manager level myself. Other than its place to sell parts, the aftermarket is a competitor.
“I think it’s something they wish would just go away.”
LAWMAKERS AND THE WIDER ECONOMY
While opinions on OEMs differ, one possible consolation for the auto repair industry is that Canadians from other industries and parts of society overwhelmingly favour right to repair thanks to its visible impact across all ages and income groups.
Bryan May is Canada’s member of parliament representing Cambridge, Ont. and the mind behind Bill C-272’s proposal. For him and his constituents, right to repair is a return to an age where products could be repaired if you had the relevant parts and knowledge, due to the lack of digital locks. “Growing up, there was a television repair (business) in my neighborhood that doesn’t exist anymore,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, something you would normally and intuitively be able to repair yourself has a digital lock.
“If we do get a true framework, it’ll have an economic impact and you’ll see a resurgence of those types of businesses.” While similar legislation has been proposed in other countries as early as 2012, this remains significant as Canada’s first proposal addressing right to repair in an era where software locks are universal across multiple industries. “We must recognize that manufacturers are not breaking any laws. In the case of Canada, the Copyright Act was written decades ago to do something…[it] was never intended [for],” said May.
From a political perspective, this is a non-partisan issue that revolves around updating outdated legalisation, rather than a conflict between small and big businesses.
“Every party in the house has a reason to get behind it. Conservatives see the value for the agriculture sector. The Bloc [Quebecois] were very keen on the idea of fighting planned obsolescence, and of course, the NDP and the Liberals are really focused on the environmental impact.”