The Five Worst Repair Stories People Told the FTC
Right to Repair

The Five Worst Repair Stories People Told the FTC

A few weeks back, the Federal Trade Commission asked for input on Right to Repair issues before its mid-July workshop, Nixing the Fix. We offered up 35 pages of research. So did 22 other organizations, including some with strange or frightening arguments.

I read through all 23 filings submitted to the FTC so you would not have to. Inside the formal language, you can see some prime examples of bad behavior already afoot. When companies think nobody is watching, and nobody can stop them, they will try some truly ridiculous strategies.

Like blaming the oil change you or a shop performed for the engine failure they’ve already diagnosed for a recall. Or increasing the price of airline repair manuals tenfold in 10 years (happy flying!). Or keeping the price of health care high by boxing out independent repairs to expensive medical machines.

Here are the five most egregious and eyebrow-raising stories we found in all those PDFs.

Hyundai Refusing Recall Repairs Because People Get Oil Changes Like Regular Humans

Oil filter

The Automotive Oil Change Association’s filing (PDF) suggests that Hyundai’s view of car ownership is akin to how feudal lords viewed farm ownership. Owner’s manuals instruct you to “have engine oil and filter changed by an authorized HYUNDAI dealer” according to a schedule. This isn’t just a wish your Hyundai dealer makes, however.

Hyundai, they of the famed 100,000-mile warranty, issued a Technical Service Bulletin in 2014 that said 2011-2013 Hyundai Elantras were experiencing a knocking noise. The cause was their own manufacturing “defects in the piston skirt coating as well as improper finishing of the connecting rods.” Despite this, a different bulletin tells mechanics that aftermarket oil filters can cause engine knocking. It directs them to perform an oil change on the vehicle (regardless of when one was last performed), note the non-OEM filter in the repair order, and discuss it with the customer.

The AOCA’s filing cites dozens of complaints about the knocking issue to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and warranty refusals because of regular ol’ oil filters:

  • “Hyundai refuses to fix the engine blaming it on poor maintenance”
  • “Hyundai denying coverage for engine replacement because owner could not produce enough oil change receipts”
  • “They changed the oil filter even though I literally had an oil change about two weeks earlier … Nothing changed and nothing was fixed, the sound was still there.”

Among oil change shops in Florida, in 2015 alone, 89 percent received complaints from customers that dealerships denied warranty service because the customer had received an oil change, or used a non-OEM part. The AOCA notes that car companies can, in fact, file for a waiver under US Code section 2302(c), if they can prove their products can only work properly with their secret-formula parts, but so many have not.

Airplane Part Makers Charge Mechanics 10 Times as Much for Manuals as 10 Years Ago

Beechcraft engine close-up, with turbines exposed.
Photo by 4volvos/Pixabay

“Since 1941, aviation safety regulations have required engine manufacturers to create and make maintenance instructions available,” writes the Aeronautical Repair Station Association. But the ARSA would not be writing to the FTC if the rule was being enforced; in fact, the ARSA itself says it probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the issue of documentation.

In surveys and complaints by members to the Small Business Administration, the ARSA finds some of them engaged in Kafka-esque fights over access. If you fly in airplanes, commercial or small, it’s not exciting to hear how pinched the people who work on aircraft have become.

  • One airplane part maker’s manuals “have risen from $5,000 to $51,000 in less than 10 years,” writes one member. “We are approved for 13 different models of [REDACTED] and could only afford to stay current with 3 models due to price gouging.”
  • Repair businesses must be using the most recent version of a manual, but many part makers revise their manuals multiple times per year, without notice to prior customers. This led one shop to hire a full-time employee “whose job is to maintain all of our manuals in current condition.”
  • Multiple ARSA members note they cannot buy manuals until they persuade their customers to reach out to the part maker and confirm them as their repair vendor. This only makes sense, because whenever you hire a plumber, they usually have to ask you to call Kohler or Moen and affirm your intent to unplug your bathtub.

Products Stop Working When Companies Flip Remote Kill Switches

SanDisk MP3 player, with battery exposed.

If you buy a bike from a company that goes under, you can still ride that bike. Ditto for cars, Bluetooth speakers, laptops, and most purchases. But the Fixit Clinic notes in its FTC filing that, while they estimate that 70% of the gear that moves through their events and shops can be fixed, sometimes companies just try their best to break things they sold. They cite:

  • Sandisk’s Sansa e260R MP3 player, which were unusable after RealNetworks’ Rhapsody service shut down, but can be made usable again through an open-source replacement OS, RockBox.
  • Pebble smartwatches lost much of their functionality after Pebble ceased operations, and their buyer Fitbit shut down services in June 2018. Rebble, an unofficial replacement built by enthusiasts and volunteers,  offers updates and paid services to those owners (ask me, I’m wearing one).
  • Millions of older flip and candybar cellphones, once useful as emergency and back-up phones, will stop working once Verizon and other carriers shut down their 3G service. While cellphones must be able to reach 911, with or without paid service, under US law, it doesn’t require that companies keep usable towers online. 

In April, Microsoft announced that anyone who bought ebooks through its Microsoft Store will see them inaccessible and eventually deleted this month. Microsoft is shutting down the DRM servers for their unpopular ebook store. Getting around that DRM is illegal under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act

Soon Your Car Will Be Connected and Can Only Send Its Data To Its Maker

Tapping an "Export" button on an iPhone, inside a Jaguar
Image by Jaguar MENA/Flickr

The Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association (MEMA) represents the makers and refurbishers of car parts. Their FTC letter contains familiar elements: companies asking repairers to use only original parts, computer parts locking themselves to specific VIN numbers, and overstated or false “cybersecurity” concerns. But for some long-term anxiety, they look to telematics, installed in one-third of US cars. It’s something we’ve been watching since at least 2014.

Telematics allows your car to feed a central server with vehicle health information and crash notifications, as well as receive software updates. Only the car maker has access to this data. Car shops, tow trucks, rescue services, and the owner cannot access it, by default. Some of this data could be the sort of thing that was once available through the universal OBD-II port, but it’s now locked in the cloud.

Even better:

Following an accident, vehicle manufacturers can steer the consumer, perhaps unwittingly and at a time when they are most vulnerable, to a dealership or loyal repair facility.

The next logical step, after voiding warranties for using unofficial oil filters, is putting directions on the console that take you right past the repair shop or auto parts store and into the dealer’s repair bay.

Health Care is So Cheap Already, Why Bother Making It Cheaper?

US Air Force technical sergeant working on medical equipment.
The Air Force lets its officers repair their base’s medical gear. Why can’t hospitals? Image by Tech. Sgt. CarlosJ. Treviño/U.S. Air Force

The FTC received a study from the University at Buffalo (go Bulls!) that looked at 20 years of repairs to medical devices in a large Illinois health care system. I know, that sentence was not exciting, but here’s the take-away: repair service for medical equipment added up to 3.5 percent of the cost of the equipment if done by third parties, 5.5 percent when done in-house, but 12-18 percent when offered by the manufacturers.

Charts in UB’s report show that more and more repair tickets are being generated by modern, software-laden devices. Yet equipment makers increasingly push hospitals into onerous service contracts and lock out third parties by not offering them manuals or diagnostic tools. It costs all of us billions of dollars, while hurting remote locales that can’t get authorized service in a timely manner.

If this all sounds like how things should be working, you don’t need to do anything. Otherwise, you have a few options: