Analysis: The hurdles ahead for the UK aftermarket


Many franchised dealers outsource jobs to independents

Independents worry about 2023 block exemption renewal and data encryption

When you hear the word aftermarket, you might think of the workshop down the road where you take your car after its warranty runs out, or perhaps a specialist that tunes imported Japanese cars. Perhaps you think of the technician with a tow-truck that dragged you out of trouble that time the car wouldn’t start, or you think of the accessory shop on the edge of town with a window display that’s always oddly filled with cheap plastic wheel trims.

All of these examples are true, but there’s much, much more to the aftermaket. Across the UK, the sector employs more than 350,000 people, and apart from the 25,000- odd general independent garages and one-make specialists, there are tens of thousands of people employed in the complex supply chain of parts and tools. Plus, there are more people than you might think working in component manufacturing, as well as in software engineering.

Every market town has an industrial estate somewhere with three or four trade-only motor factors, usually locked in deadly competition with one another, while that battered-looking accessory shop probably delivers the majority of its orders directly to local garages and is likely a member of a much larger (and possibly international) parts-buying group.

Behind the scenes

Despite this, it would be wrong to suggest that franchised dealers, if not the vehicle manufacturers themselves, don’t work with the aftermarket. In point of fact, your local main dealer may use the aftermarket more than you realise, particularly for jobs that require a lot of specialist tools and knowledge or, crucially, jobs that would fill a ramp in the dealer’s workshop that could be more profitably used to carry out routine service and repair jobs.

Complex diagnostic jobs, where the dealer’s expensive scan tool doesn’t provide a conclusive answer, will often be farmed out to a local specialist. (Tip: odd wiring faults are more often than not down to nesting mice chewing through the loom. There’s no fault code for that.)

Glass replacement, which now often include recalibration of advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), is regularly done by a specialist third party, as are minor body repairs and some other ‘problem’ jobs, such as pulling and testing diesel injectors.

Block exemption

However, the vast majority of work in the aftermarket takes place away from the dealership. The right to have your car serviced and repaired where you choose is known as BER and has been a right hard won by the sector over decades.

Under BER (correctly known as the Block Exemption Regulations 461/2010), you can have your new car serviced outside of the dealer network. It must be done by a “competent person” working according to the manufacturer’s service schedule and use parts of “matching quality” to the originals. The manufacturer is obliged to provide access to repair and maintenance data, both from the car itself via the diagnostics port and to your garage’s computer tool, using tech known as pass-through.

Even then, some people think that their new car is tied to the dealer from which they bought it, at least for the duration of its warranty. And they can’t be blamed, because the aftermarket has been spectacularly bad about publicising this.

Even so, main dealers are hardly wild about BER, because the majority of profit on a new car comes from the aftersales service, not from the sale of the car itself. However, the number of people that take advantage and service their new cars outside the dealer network is very small.

Now the aftermarket is pushing to have the regulations renewed in 2023 and the ‘right to repair’ and access to repair and maintenance information enshrined in law, because it fears being technically locked out of the new generation of cars entirely as manufacturers seek to encrypt the data that’s generated by ‘connected’ cars – even those that don’t contain security information or data that could identify the owner.

“It’s a very significant threat, and it’s one as independent operators we can’t ignore,” said Ronan McDonagh, technical director of the European distributors’ federation, FIGIEFA. “Once there’s encryption, reverse-engineering becomes very difficult, if not impossible, from a software perspective.”

Previously, it was possible to reverse-engineer vehicle components, even ones that had microchips and were coded to the car. However, all new cars on sale today can wirelessly connect to a central computer for software updates, telemetry information and to inform the authorities of the vehicle’s location in the event of a crash. This means that some of the data generated by a vehicle is encrypted, and the aftermarket is concerned that, unless forced not to by law, manufacturers will hide behind the excuse that every system has to be ‘secured’ and therefore nobody but their agents will be allowed to service them.

Lawrence Bleasdale, a director of brake parts supplier Eurofriction and a board member of the UK’s Independent Automotive Aftermarket Federation trade body, is quite clear on the subject. “These regulations, fought for over many years, have provided independent garages protection and the ability to successfully access newer vehicles, bringing about new skills and standards. If they were to disappear, there would be no quick workaround,” he said, adding that these rules are “central to ensuring a level playing field”.

At this point, the bodies representing new car dealers have been fairly muted.

Sue Robinson, the chief executive of the National Franchise Dealers Association, said: “We will formulate the sector’s response [to BER renewal] over the coming months to outline franchise dealers’ position.”

SMMT boss Mike Hawes added: “[Our] position will be to ensure that competition thrives, because that will be of benefit to the consumer.”

However, a glance across the Atlantic gives an indication of the coming fight. In the US state of Massachusetts, a vote was recently passed to allow residents similar rights to BER. This was in spite of a $2 million TV advertising campaign, funded by manufacturers, telling motorists in the most apocalyptic terms that they were to have their identities stolen, be stalked, be harassed or worse if the vote went through. The claims were quickly debunked by cyber-security experts.

The public ignored the adverts and voted to have the right to repair, but the manufacturer coalition is now attempting to sue the state in an attempt to block the law being passed. You can expect to see a similar commotion in the UK and Europe ahead of the next BER renewal in 2023.

The future of the aftermarket

So what of the future of the aftermarket? As in all parts of the car industry, great change is likely over the next decade.

Aside from the never-ending battle with the manufacturers over the right to repair, electrification poses its own challenges, as does gearing up to calibrate ADAS.

Battery electric vehicles are actually comparatively simple to work on, although it’s a case of things getting worse before they get better, because the current crop of petrol and diesel cars are fiendishly tricky to work on.

It’s likely that the number of all-makes service and repair garages will decrease, although one-marque technicians as well as people who specialise in one thing, such as key coding or battery repair, will become more common.

Despite the challenges, though, whatever happens in the future, as long as the public have a desire to own their own vehicles, the aftermarket will be there to keep them safely and efficiently on the road.

Greg Whittaker


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Source: Autocar

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