While coming up with cleaner sources for raw materials is great, the environmental impact of that often can’t come close to just reusing materials we already took from nature. For example, Ford’s looking for better ways to produce aluminum, but it notes that simply recycling the stuff takes only 5% of the energy of getting new metal from mines. The same is often true of vehicles, electronics, and anything else. Using things we already have and keeping them going for longer can greatly reduce the lifetime impact of our transportation needs.
But we’ve learned from electronics and household appliances that repair isn’t always as easy as we’d like. In some cases, repair isn’t possible. In other cases, manufacturers intentionally put barriers in the way of repairing something because they’d like us to just buy a new one. Or, worse, technical barriers can require us to go get expensive repairs done with the manufacturer, which drains our wallets and reduces the control we have over our own property. In some cases, this is to get more money out of us, and in others, the goal is to divert us to buying again due to the high costs.
Worst, in some cases an unholy alliance of government and business colludes to prevent repair. By abusing copyright, trademark, and encryption laws, manufacturers can make it illegal to work on your own devices and vehicles, just in case we hack our way around the barriers.
Repairing and keeping things running longer is an important tool we can use to protect the environment, so finding good arguments against these practices to use in public policy debates is a good idea. While Scotty Kilmer can be abrasive and not kind to EVs at times, some of his takes in this video are worth considering and using when these debates come up.
Comparison To Big Pharma
One argument he starts with is that automakers not allowing repairs is pretty similar to the approach that big pharma takes to things. Pharmaceutical companies have up to 12 years of time to sell a new product with no competition in the market under US law, so they often use this situation to take advantage of patients who have no choice but to use the drug. Sure, we need to pay companies back for life-saving research and give them some motivation to keep doing that, but some of the drug prices are far above the levels needed to do that. Plus, it would be impossible for them to do that if they didn’t have the government acting as enforcers.
While having a car isn’t life-and-death in much of the world where there’s good public transit, in many places you just can’t keep a job, take care of your family, or do anything without a car. When automakers act like big pharma and keep people from working on their own cars, they have the same opportunity to take basically whatever they want from people with no competition. Patenting parts keeps alternative suppliers (or, in pharmaceutical parlance, “generics”) from appearing in the marketplace, so this is a situation that’s nearly identical to prescription drugs.
He goes into much greater detail on this, so be sure to watch the video.
Right To Repair Lowers Car Insurance Premiums
When automakers do this, they tend to make their parts significantly more expensive, and limitations on patent law means collision parts are the most likely to be patented. This means that repairing a car after a collision is going to be a lot more expensive without right to repair. Auto repair shops don’t want to eat the cost for these more expensive parts, so they’ll pass the cost onto whoever is paying for the repair.
While some repairs are funded by the car’s owner, many repairs are paid for by someone’s insurance company. Insurance companies aren’t about to give car companies or repair shops free money, so they’re going to find ways to pass this cost onto customers. This drives up everyone’s cost to drive, and disproportionately affects the poor (it’s a higher percentage of their income).
This means that automakers who are right to repair friendly are going to have lower insurance rates in the future, so it’s an important part of your car buying decisions.
Without right to repair, and with the more expensive resulting parts, the chance of a car’s repairs exceeding half of the car’s value in a collision is much greater. This means the car hits the local pick-and-pull, and you’re having to shop for a new car. Obviously, this is good for car companies, because they, uh, sell cars, right?
When a car gets to that point, it was probably still repairable, though. This means a whole new car was built when some parts could have been built by an aftermarket supplier instead. This is obviously far worse for the environment.
Hiding The True Price Of A Car
This greater profit from parts allows manufacturers to hide the real cost of their cars. When they know they’ll make money off of you later, they can come up with a lower initial price to undercut their competitors. In the long run, you end up paying more, but they’ve already made the sale, so it’s too late.
If legal changes happen that allow generic car parts and other rights to repair, this will hurt automotive companies because they’ve already counted future repairs as part of their profits. Expect them to fight reforms tooth-and-nail if they’re involved in these shady practices.
Reform Is Possible
Bills to fix this situation have been kicking around the US Congress since 2013, but automakers contribute a lot to campaigns, so they can ask legislators for a favor and scuttle such reforms. But if we can make more voters aware of this situation, we could get this to change. Letting people know that the government is helping companies rip them off is a powerful motivator.
Another thing we should do is encourage manufacturers to not engage in these shady practices to begin with. Before you buy a car, figure out what it takes to repair the car, and whether the manufacturer is friendly to allowing independent shops and aftermarket suppliers to support the car after warranty. If you don’t like the answers, let the manufacturer know why you didn’t buy their car. Then, go buy a car from a more ethical and environmentally aware manufacturer.
If they can’t make money on this scam, they will quit doing it. This would be great for not only our pocketbooks, but our planet. And we need our planet.
Featured image by Sgt. Sarah Fiocco, U.S. Department of Defense Photo (Public Domain). The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.
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