EU law expiry threatens road patrols
Publication date: 21 January 2009
Answering over 10 million rescue calls each year, automobile clubs' roadside assistance patrols benefit greatly from the EU 's Block Exemption Regulation (BER), a provision that forces vehicle manufacturers to disclose information on all motor vehicles sold since October 2002. But what will happen when the rule expires in May 2010?
Even though some significant improvements to the BER are still needed, the current situation is much healthier for automobile clubs and consumers than before. Currently, technical details are usually made available on manufacturers' web sites at a cost of €3 or €4 for one hour of access. Independent operators, including automobile clubs and other roadside assistance operators have the same access as authorised repairers to the on-board diagnostics (OBD) systems of the vehicle.
Since 2002, the BER has succeeded in achieving better price parity across the EU and improving access for market operators to vehicle manufacturers' technical information, ensuring fair competition with authorised networks in after-market services.
"Any change to the current regime must bear in mind the fact that repair and maintenance are key cost issues for most motorists. Many owners are not prepared to pay the premium rates of the authorised repair network to maintain their vehicles," said Wil Botman, director general of the FIA European Bureau. Botman points out that a European car is, on average, eight years old and in some countries even 18 years old.
"European consumers must be free to have their vehicles serviced, maintained and repaired at a workshop of their choice, using parts of their choice that are affordable for their pocket," he said.
Under the BER, automobile clubs have also benefited from other facilities such as reprogramming techniques used by many manufacturers to update software and correct faults. The regulations put a stop to the previous situation whereby risky reverse engineering – a process of taking apart a device to analyse how it operates – was necessary to gain the required information.
The FIA's voice in this debate has been strengthened by its partnership with the Right to Repair Campaign (www.r2rc.eu). Both organisations have combined forces to react against the European Commission's evaluation report on the BER published in May 2008. The report firmly favours scrapping the provision after its expiry in May 2010.
"It is hard to understand why the commission would put such a fundamental consumer right at risk," said Charles de Marcilly, managing director of the European Council for Motor Trade and Repairs (CECRA).
The R2RC partnership is calling on the European Commission and member states to build on the existing BER and achieve further improvements. On 21 January, the campaigners will present their case for retaining the BER to members of the European Parliament at a lunch hosted by Dutch MEP Cornelis Visser. Although on this occasion the European Parliament has no official voice, an opportunity to campaign and earn its support is certainly worthwhile.
After 2010, when the new regulatory framework for type approval of motor vehicles and parts comes into force, BER's provisions to ensure 'full and non-discriminatory' access will be terminated. While the access to information procedures may be satisfactory, they will only apply to new vehicle types and will be slow to take effect. In the meantime, cars produced earlier and vehicles that continue to be produced under earlier type approvals will lose the important protection provisions under BER.
"The power of vehicle manufacturers to rule the market would be so unrestricted if no other specific legislation were set in place," said Christian Scholly, chairman of the FIA Legal & Consumer Affairs Commission.
Caroline Ofoegbu of the FIA European Bureau fears things could get worse: "After a period of making progress, we could see a reversal from 2010. Without current legislation, club patrols would be starved of accurate repair information and unable to afford the diagnostic tools. Clubs and other independent operators would be able to perform only the most basic repairs - in most cases only towing transport vehicles to authorised repairers, leaving consumers with poor service at a high cost."
Securing access to technical information is even more crucial given the ongoing development of in-car electronics systems and technologies. Rather than abolishing the BER, more should be done to improve it, offering greater legal certainty.
The FIA European Bureau and FIA club experts are currently participating in the work of the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) under a mandate from the European Commission to finalise a web-based system. Called OASIS, this system is needed to provide vehicle manufacturers' technical information in an affordable and standardised format for all users. The aim is to ensure that, for example, roadside repair patrols have access to all necessary repair information at minimal rates.
The CEN Security Forum, in which the FIA also participates, is working to create a system preventing manufacturers from having the means to withhold vehicle information and thereby favour their own authorised repairers.
The FIA European Bureau is actively participating in the consultation process organised by the commission, to review general regulations, vertical restraints regulation and the BER evaluation report.
The FIA is asking the commission to come up with specific provisions to guarantee unrestricted and standardised access to technical information. This should additionally include service announcements and manufacturer information on recalls for road safety and environmental matters, as well as issues affecting the correct functioning, durability and life expectancy of the vehicle.
Legislation could take the form of a renewed motor vehicle BER within the general vertical restraints regulation (also to be revised) or within a separate Right to Repair Act for onboard diagnostics.
As an active participant in the Right to Repair Campaign under the guidance of the Alliance for the Freedom of Car Repair (AFCAR), the FIA is lobbying all EU institutions, commission, Parliament and member states to ensure that any future decision is based on full awareness of the issues, confronting not only the vehicle manufacturers but also the independent aftermarket, including automobile clubs.