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Automotive recyclers seek parts information

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As new cars have come packed with more programmable electronic components, composite materials and smart technologies, it’s become increasingly difficult for automotive recyclers to reliably detenrmine whether an original equipment manufactured (OEM) recycled part is the right one to use to repair or service a specific car. Auto manufacturers have detailed parts information, and provide it to dealers and insurance service and repair networks, but have been reluctant to give access to recyclers. Last year automotive recyclers asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to require car companies to supply them with comprehensive parts data as part of proposed recall regulation.

The growth in electronic parts is one factor driving the request, said Michael Wilson, CEO of the Automotive Recyclers Association, based in Manassas, Virginia. Electronic components may look exactly alike while being programmed to function only on one specific make, model and year of vehicle.

To determine whether the part can be recycled, a recycler has to know whether the part needs reprogramming, if it is still functional and if it is the correct match. Without detailed parts and reprogramming information, Wilson said, recyclers have to spend extra time and effort to provide customers with what they hope is the best recycled part for their vehicle.


As new cars have come packed with more programmable electronic components, composite materials and smart technologies, it’s become increasingly difficult for automotive recyclers to reliably determine whether an original equipment manufactured (OEM) recycled part is the right one to use to repair or service a specific car. Auto manufacturers have detailed parts information, and provide it to dealers and insurance service and repair networks, but have been reluctant to give access to recyclers. Last year automotive recyclers asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to require car companies to supply them with comprehensive parts data as part of proposed recall regulation.

The growth in electronic parts is one factor driving the request, said Michael Wilson, CEO of the Automotive Recyclers Association, based in Manassas, Virginia. Electronic components may look exactly alike while being programmed to function only on one specific make, model and year of vehicle.

To determine whether the part can be recycled, a recycler has to know whether the part needs reprogramming, if it is still functional and if it is the correct match. Without detailed parts and reprogramming information, Wilson said, recyclers have to spend extra time and effort to provide customers with what they hope is the best recycled part for their vehicle.

That added effort raises costs, hurts recycling and depresses customer satisfaction compared to what they could do with better parts information, Wilson said. “If recyclers had the same information that repairers and dealers had, it would cut down on the returns back to the recycler, reduce cycle time and make a much more efficient system for both the consumer and the recycler,” he said.

Motor vehicle safety recalls compound the problem. In 2012, NHTSA reports that manufacturers issued nearly 600 recalls affecting more than 16 million vehicles. The incidence of recyclers having a recalled part in their inventory is minimal. However to protect their customers, recyclers have to conduct informal searches to do all they can to make sure that no recalled part is sold from their facilities. If recyclers had the same recall data that many collision and service centers have, then consumers would be better protected.

Automotive recyclers often use a system known as the Hollander Interchange that provides an index of parts and interchangeable equivalents from other vehicles. It can help recyclers know, for instance, whether a transmission removed from one vehicle will also fit a different model that the manufacturer equipped with an identical transmission. But the Interchange system was not designed to address and does not currently capture the detail required for reliable one-to-one matchups of all parts.

Auto collision repair shops obtain detailed parts data through software programs that decode vehicle identification numbers (VINs) to accurately identify parts on individual cars. Because VINs are unique to each individual vehicle, they can generate information about any parts used for standard and factory-installed options for paint, interior trim, engine, transmission and more. Developers of these products however are prohibited in their contracts with manufacturers from providing the parts data to professional automotive recyclers. As a result of the lack of reliable parts-matching data, consumers are often forced to pay more for new parts from OEMs.

If auto recyclers had this data, they could use it when purchasing vehicles at auctions and making decisions related to their business inventory. Inputting the VIN of a vehicle for sale would tell a recycler exactly what parts were on it. This would promote accurately priced competitive bids and increase the odds a vehicle would be purchased by a buyer who could harvest the most parts for sale to consumers and maintain or improve recycling rates.

Things are different in some other countries. European end-of-life vehicle policies began requiring automakers to give comprehensive parts data to repair shops and recyclers a decade ago. As a result, sophisticated software and systems that generate fast and accurate repair estimates were created. These have migrated to the U.S., but OEMs aren’t required to share the data with recyclers in the U.S. So while body shops use the systems, recyclers can’t. “There is no OEM that I know of that is providing this information to our industry,” Wilson said.

As America’s auto fleet ages, recycling becomes more important. Yet without detailed parts data, recyclers’ job becomes more difficult due to new automotive technology. “We should be finding ways we can work together to utilize recycled parts on these cars,” Wilson said of the recyclers and automakers.

For now, however, the NHTSA request is not generating any change. “NHTSA said that the specific request for parts data was outside the scope of what they could look at,” Wilson said. The automotive recycler group is pushing ahead with a request that NHTSA require parts data be included in an automated recall notice system to which recyclers will have access. Under this system, professional automotive recyclers would receive alerts on recall notices and information on what parts were affected. Wilson said professional automotive recyclers see the recall process as way to demonstrate how access to more parts information would improve safety and efficiency and increase the environmental benefits of automotive recycling.

Without change, identifying economical alternatives to new OEM parts is going to get more challenging. Wilson notes that automakers are increasingly designing parts as large as transmissions that are difficult or impossible to repair and so must be replaced entirely, which can be so costly that it can even result in a whole vehicle being scrapped. The availability of well-matched recycled replacements for non-repairable parts could keep otherwise functional vehicles on the road longer.

Many problems would be eased if automotive recyclers had access to detailed parts information, Wilson said. The fact that the information exists and is being used effectively in other industries is encouraging, he said. Now automotive recyclers and affected stakeholders must convince the lawmakers and regulators that they too should have the same information.