The Right to Repair movement has gotten another boost. Recently, a bipartisan bill named the Save Money on Auto Repair Transportation (SMART) Act was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. The intent? To save consumers money and protect their choices while also giving car manufacturer’s the chance to protect their intellectual property rights.
Introduced by California Congressman Darrell Issa in early June, the SMART Act will support fair competition for repair parts, keeping costs down for consumers. Car owners will get the well-made parts that they need to repair their vehicles without the cost of owning a car skyrocketing.
But what’s in the bill? And how, precisely, will it help consumers?
Why Do We Need the SMART Act?
It’s no secret that competition helps to keep down the costs of products. Why buy one item when an equally well-made version is available, cheaper? When it comes to owning a car, consumers deserve choices. The SMART Act’s purpose is to make sure that they have it by clarifying how car manufacturers can use something called a design patent.
The auto industry has always used design patents, typically to protect the look of an entire vehicle. Think about the distinctive lines of a Corvette or the utilitarian and classic look of a Jeep. Instantly recognizable, car companies want consumers to perk up when their car goes by.
In the recent past, however, car manufacturers – also called Original Equipment Manufacturers, or OEMs – have begun to use design patents to keep others from making and selling alternative service parts (aftermarket parts). They’ve been registering patents not just on the overall design of a vehicle, but on the individual parts that make up the car or truck.
That makes sense for newer models – the OEMs want to protect how the car looks for a while and to leverage the hard work they put into the design and manufacturing of the vehicle.
But design patents last a long time – 15 years. While the length of time that consumers keep their cars is growing, the period covered by a design patent means that the OEMs are the only ones that would be allowed to make and sell parts for your car for the entire time you own it.
That’s tough on consumers. For instance, many parts that need to be replaced after a collision are these same cosmetic parts that the OEMs are protecting with design patents. In years past, aftermarket manufacturers – also known as alternative parts manufacturers – have made replacement collision parts like bumpers and headlamps, giving consumers a choice about the parts used on their cars. But with the new design patents, alternative parts are getting pushed out of the market. That forces consumers to get their parts only from one source – the OEMs – which creates a monopoly!
The SMART Act looks to strike a balance between protecting the OEM’s intellectual property and giving the alternative parts industry the opportunity to offer replacement collision parts to consumers.
What Does the SMART Act Include?
The SMART Act would make a few narrowly defined changes to design patents. OEMs could still file for them on both the look of the car and on the look of individual parts. But design patents for parts would drop from 15 years to only 2.5.
During that time, alternative parts companies could research and even make similar replacement parts, they just wouldn’t be able to sell them until the 2.5 year protected period is over.
So, If a consumer gets into an accident in the first 30 months after purchasing a brand new car, their parts will come from the vehicle’s manufacturer. After that time period, customers will have a choice over which parts they want on their car.
How Will it Make Vehicle Repairs Less Expensive?
This will have a positive impact on everyone, particularly consumers. Why?
As long as the OEM holds an exclusive right to manufacture and sell a collision repair part, they can charge whatever they would like for it. In fact, experts have estimated that, without the competition provided by alternative parts, repairs to a vehicle after a collision could be nearly double what they are now.
With alternative parts in the mix, consumers get a choice in what they want on their car. Plus, the cost of repairing a vehicle will not increase dramatically. Once the 2.5 year grace period is over, aftermarket parts will be available, creating competition for the OEM parts and giving consumers a choice.
What Other Impacts Will it Have?
It isn’t just out-of-pocket repair costs that will be kept in check, though. When aftermarket parts aren’t available for collision repairs, insurance companies charge higher premiums for auto insurance.
It makes sense – if cars are more expensive to repair, the insurance companies will, obviously, pass those costs on to the consumer.
The SMART Act protects your wallet when paying for repairs to your vehicle and when paying for insurance. With reasonably-priced alternatives to OEM parts, insurance companies won’t need to jack up their rates to make up for the increased cost of repairs.
The SMART Act is a fair and balanced bill that allows OEMs to protect their intellectual property while also creating room for aftermarket parts. In the end, the real winner is the consumer, who can keep the cost of repairs to their vehicles down and keep their insurance premiums in check.
Tell Congress that you want to keep your repair and insurance costs down.
Contact the U.S. Representative for your district and let them know that you join organizations like Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety Coalition, the Automotive Body Parts Association (ABPA), the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), the American Property Casualty Insurers of America, and the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies (NAMIC), among many others, in fully supporting the SMART Act.