Right2Repair is calling for in-warranty reairs to be opened to accredited independent workshops. Picture: Volvo Trucks
Johannesburg - Before computers and processors controlled electrical systems, anyone with a little know-how, tools and patience could repair just about anything. From farmers out in the sticks to urban motorists trying to save money: if you had access to a manual, you could do most of the tinkering yourself. Or, at least, attempt to.

Today’s vehicles have become sophisticated computers on wheels. Features that were once only seen in luxury vehicles, such as electronic braking systems, electric windows, central locking and traction control, have become standard in many entry-level cars. Repair work is more technical than ever and manufacturers lock down their manuals and codes for security, diagnostic and telematics systems.

So when something goes wrong, the workshop mechanic is likely to first plug it into a computer than look under the bonnet to determine the fault. But not everyone has access to such equipment and if you want to protect your warranty, you have to take your vehicle to approved dealerships.

What if motorists had more choice about where to take their vehicles and which spares to use?

Challenging the monopoly

That’s a question the Motor Industry Workshop Association has been asking for years. It’s challenging the existing monopoly exerted by the dealer network and the Original Equipment Manufacturers over repairs and warranties in the aftermarket sector. The workshop association represents more than 2200 members nationally, which includes general repairers, auto electricians, driveline and transmission specialists, and vehicle accessory centres.

Launched in 2013, the MIWA’s “Right2Repair” campaign, which is supported by Bosch, Grandmark and Mahle, is lobbying for consumers to have more choice. More competition, it believes, will drive down prices and encourage consumers to maintain their vehicles.

It’s not calling for untrained roadside repairers and backyard mechanics to be given a bite of the apple. But it does want the market to be opened to include and train the previously disadvantaged to increase economic participation.

R2RSA chairman Richerd Clarke said: “There is a need for a fair and competitive regulatory environment that enables freedom of choice for the consumer and gives aftermarket small and medium-sized enterprises a chance to stay in business. South African legislature needs to follow the international Right to Repair trend which promotes existing consumer and competition laws.

"Our objectives are to raise awareness among consumers and bring about this legislative change.”

Clarke said Right to Repair campaigns in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia had seen change implemented and, in some countries, legislated.

“The status quo in South Africa cannot continue," he insisted. "It's exclusionary and unsustainable. Aftermarket repairers are being denied access to codes, tools, and information, and parts are overpriced. Current exclusionary practices mean SMEs are being driven out of business, and job creation is restricted as is the growth of this sector. 

"Denying workshops the chance to repair vehicles because of warranties and access to information has allowed Original Equipment Manufacturers to monopolise the automotive industry. If there is no change, workshops will no longer be able to service new vehicles sold in five years’ time.”

Draft Code

On 5 October the Competition Commission gazetted a draft code of conduct for the automotive industry, and members of the public have until 3 November to comment.

The draft code is aimed at allowing independent service providers to undertake in-warranty mechanical work; for more service providers to participate in the Original Equipment Manufacturer network; for more previously disadvantaged people to own dealerships; for more choice in service, maintenance and repairs; more product choice and competitive prices; and to drive awareness of maintenance and service plan costs.

Les McMaster, director and spokesperson of the R2RSA campaign, explained: “We've been sold the misperception that independent workshops and aftermarket parts will reduce the safety of vehicles if they do repairs. But in reality, if you look at Europe and the US, where the principles of Right to Repair were introduced decades ago, the roadworthiness of vehicles is much higher.

Neglecting their vehicles

"The cost of maintenance and repair is causing many drivers to neglect their vehicles, which the campaign believes can be avoided if there was more competition. Not only are we neglecting our vehicles and risking our safety, only an estimated 35 percent of vehicles on our roads are insured. It’s an expensive gamble, but about 65 percent of drivers are chancing it.

“We also believe access to technical information, training and tools for the informal sector will have a positive influence on safety," McMaster said. "Our car park is getting older and parts prices, especially the systems controllers, are escalating beyond the value of the vehicle. The consequence of this is that our roads are littered with highly dangerous vehicles with partially working safety systems.

“It's crucial that the public has a look at the draft code and submits comments. This is our chance to see real change that will benefit consumers and their rights when it comes to servicing their vehicles."

The right to decline

Referring to maintenance and motor plans, McMaster said it appeared that, according to the draft code, maintenance plans locking the consumer into a contract with the Original Equipment Manufacturer dealerships will still be permitted, but they must be offered independently of the vehicle.

“If those products are beneficial to the consumer, the consumer will still have the option to purchase them. What’s important is that the consumer also has the right to decline them,” he added.

The draft code does not, however, address faulty spares. While the Consumer Protection Act requires that anything sold has a warranty of at least six months, many manufacturers do not honour warranties on electrical parts fitted by independent, accredited workshops. Manufacturers also require diagnostics to be done and paid for by customers - regardless of the outcome - for faulty parts supplied to independent workshops.

“As R2RSA we strongly believe that issues such as these are not in line with the Competition Act or consumer law," Clarke said. "We therefore strongly support the Competition Commission’s probe into such practices.”

Greater transparency needed  

Competition Commission divisional manager for advocacy and public affairs Khanyisa Qobo said the commission wanted greater transparency regarding inclusions and exclusions in warranty, maintenance and service plans.

“Consumers need to be aware upfront about the repairs, maintenance or parts replacements that are covered by the Original Equipment Manufacturers through such plans or policies, and these provisions must be consistent with the Consumer Protection Act.”

Qobo added that the draft code made provision for the removal of restrictions on the use of spare parts.

“Specifically, we are advocating for the use of ‘equal matching parts’ for service or repair work, without affecting the customer’s warranty. This should provide more choice for consumers, and thereby price competitiveness. There are also provisions for the removal of restrictions in the sale and distribution of parts, whether by independent or Original Equipment Manufacturer dealers.”

Read the draft code on the Competition Commission website and email your comments to [email protected] by 3 November.

The Star