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Automakers, independent service shops, and AAA have struggled for years over who has rights to these diagnostic codes. Clearly, by controlling access to this information, automakers can give their own dealers an edge in servicing their own vehicles-or they can force independent garages to sign up for training and pay hefty license fees.

In 2001, the U.S. Congress threatened automakers with the Right to Repair Act, which would have forced them to reveal their codes. The legislation was scuttled in 2002 when automakers promised that they would share their technical information. The legislation, officially designated HR 2735, was reintroduced in the House of Representatives last July.

Not surprisingly, automakers oppose the legislation. “It is not necessary,” says John Trajnowski, a principal staff engineer at Ford Motor. “We are making all of our information available now.” Consumers and independent repair shops can purchase three-day access to Ford’s Motorcraft Web site for $19.95.

Trajnowski contends that the legislation “is being sponsored primarily by after-market-parts manufacturers,” who want to force carmakers to reveal their “proprietary control strategies” for sensors, controls, and other high-tech car equipment. This would make it easier for third parties to make clone parts.

But even if the legislation has such a hidden purpose, it’s irrelevant. The real issue here is our rights as owners of technology in the digital age: if we buy a car that has an onboard computer, that computer should act in our best interests. If it makes a diagnosis, we have a right to know it. Our tools shouldn’t hide information from us in order to enhance somebody else’s revenue. AAA has taken a similar position and is strongly supporting HR 2735. With luck, it will pass before the end of the session this fall.

As for my van, the computer said that the problem was with the oxygen sensor. But the fan control relay was also acting up. And there were possibly problems with the internal logic module. I decided that things were going to keep breaking, so we halted all repairs and traded in the van for a 2004 Honda Pilot. We got $500.

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