COMMENT: Crash parts debate: Automakers fighting to save their lucrative monopoly are hypocrites

Franz W. Rother is Editor-in-Chief of Automobilwoche

The owners of vintage cars know the problem. They cannot get replacement parts for their beloved cars from the vehicle's maker because the manufacturer does not make the parts any more.

When the fenders are rusty a vintage car owner has is to turn to the independent spare parts market for replacements.

One way is to get the parts from the supplier who originally made the part for the automaker. A more successful way is to try and find a specialist parts seller on the Internet.

In the future, new car owners and independent repair shops also will be able to buy replacement parts from the original manufacturer or over the Internet. This is true because the European Commission has decided to scrap legal design protection for visible parts such as headlights, fenders, bumpers and engine hoods.

German and French automakers resisted the move but the UK and the Benelux countries scrapped design protection for crash parts years ago. In these countries car owners who need a new headlight or a new bumper are not forced to order them from the automaker at exorbitant prices.

Automakers in France and Germany that benefit from design protection are annoyed at losing their monopoly. They warn of serious safety risks if "production pirates" from the Far East are allowed to copy car parts without being prosecuted.

Cheap spare parts may not be safe in an accident and there is the question of who is liable if an unauthorized spare part fails.

But this argument by the automakers is hypocritical. By using this defense car manufacturers are lumping respectable spare parts suppliers with Chinese product pirates.

They also are spreading unease among consumers in France and Germany with their horror stories. Drivers in the UK and Belgium have not been driving motorized time bombs since the removal of the design protection regulations in those countries.

The fact that only 20-25 percent of spare parts are actually designed and manufactured by OEMs themselves is also being kept quiet.

The majority of crash parts sold by the automakers are bought from suppliers. These suppliers and also independent dealers of spare parts cannot afford to sell substandard parts.

In reality it is all about money, not road safety. In Germany the replacement parts market is worth about 2.5 billion euros a year. The overall European market is worth about four times that figure.

So it is understandable that OEMs are defending their monopoly with all their might.

Right now all they can hope for is that the next European Commission will be more industry-friendly and reverse the decision of the outgoing Commission.

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