Back in the late 1980s, the automotive aftermarket lobbied Congress for an amendment to provisions in the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments that required all 1996 and later vehicles be equipped with on-board diagnostic systems (OBD) II.
The provision in question mandated that the OBD II system was supposed to accurately identify a “emissions-related system deterioration or malfunction which could cause or result in failure of the vehicle to comply with emission standards.” The devices further had to alert the vehicle owner to the need for emission related components or system maintenance or repair.
Notwithstanding the benefits of OBD II systems to clean air and to technicians attempting to diagnose and repair a vehicle’s emissions system, the aftermarket was concerned that car companies would use proprietary OBD ports. The absence of port standardization, the aftermarket told Congress, would create, at best, increased costs to shops that would need to obtain a variety of connectors for every brand of vehicle they serviced; or at worst, a way for car companies to control access to the port in order to drive business to their preferred service provider (likely the new car dealer or those that purchased the most replacement parts from them).
Fortunately, the industry’s lobbying efforts were successful, and Congress included a provision in the 1990 Amendments that required that the OBD II port to be “standard and uniform on all motor vehicles” and that access to the OBD II system is unrestricted and “shall not require any access code or any device which is only available from a vehicle manufacturer.” Decades later, it’s easy to forget the efforts that were necessary to obtain a standardized diagnostic connector or to think about the impact on the competitiveness of the industry had Congress not acted.
Now, with the advent of telematics, which permits the wireless transmission of diagnostic information, the industry once again stands on the precipice of either a rosy future or possibly one controlled by the vehicle manufacturer. While the manufacturers can obtain diagnostic information wirelessly directly from the vehicle, the aftermarket continues to rely on the OBD II port for the same data.
But what happens if Congress permits the port to go away; or if manufacturers limit the port to only the emissions related information that is required by current law? The independent technician would be forced to fully rely on the vehicle manufacturer to obtain the information needed to service their customer’s vehicle. The aftermarket would be back in the same position we were in during the debate in the 1980s over a standardized OBD II port: Less competition and increased control by the manufacturer over the repair market.
Whether it’s the OBD port or if the information is transmitted wirelessly, the technician needs access to that data directly from the vehicle and that access needs to be standardized such that each vehicle manufacturer cannot make the diagnostic data available in a proprietary code. Of course, the advent of wireless communications has increased the danger of someone hacking into a vehicle, but that does not mean that methods cannot be developed that would protect critical vehicle systems while still making data available.