If You Bought It, Do You Own It—Right to Repair

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the NMA magazine Driving Freedoms Winter 2021 edition. If you would like to receive the NMA quarterly magazine, join the NMA today!

Massachusetts’ voters, by nearly 75 percent, demanded their right-to-repair on November 3, 2020. Voters were under the impression that casting their ballots for Question 1, would allow independent repair shops and do-it-yourselfers to access critical information about their cars to fix them. After all, this was just an update to the 2012 law that allowed mechanics and DIYs to access data through the vehicle’s on-board diagnostics port. That legislation even became the national standard. The 2020 update would enable wireless access to the data portals that many new cars now have.

Why is right-to-repair so important?

If your regular mechanic cannot make the repair without access to the diagnostics port, you will have no choice but to take it to the dealership, which will likely cost more.

Ultimately, what this means is that you do not own your entire vehicle. You also lose the choice of who repairs it. Farmers have the same issue with current model tractors. Manufacturers control your choices, and there is also a question about auto security.

SecuRepairs, a company that advocated for Question 1, states on its website that the auto industry’s ability to keep wireless data secure is in doubt.

“Rather than trying to frighten consumers, carmakers should make owner access to data easy, while also being transparent about what data they are collecting from smart vehicles and how they use it. Facts and transparency, not fear, are the antidote for the public’s anxiety about data privacy and security.”

Both sides spent a total of nearly $63 million on the Question 1 ballot initiative. According to Ballotpedia, the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition, which also sponsored the 2012 initiative, raised $24.9 million in contributions. Top donors included the Coalition for Automotive Repair Equality, the Auto Car Association, and some big-box auto parts retailers. The Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, part of the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, raised $26.6 million in contributions. The Coalition is funded by all the world’s automakers such as Ford, General Motorists, Honda, Toyota, and Volkswagen.

Another troubling aspect during the November 3rd election cycle: the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data used advertising scare tactics that implied that you were a criminal if you or your mechanic accessed data.

Ballot initiatives are meant for citizens to put forward important issues to voters. With all the special interest money involved in Question 1, the quaint concept of letting the citizens decide has been thrown out the window.

Automakers are now turning to the courts to make sure right-to-repair never happens. In late November, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation filed a lawsuit in US District Court for the District of Massachusetts, stating that the “right-to-repair” law violated federal law and raises safety and privacy concerns for vehicle owners.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey announced in mid-December that her office would not enforce the revised law until the federal courts decide on the automakers’ claim. This was after the Alliance asked for a temporary order that would bar implementation. When (or if) the amended right-to-repair law, passed overwhelmingly by voters, will go into effect is an open question.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation also stated recently that the Alliance would likely reach out to the 2021 state legislature and ask that the law be delayed since the next model year, 2022, is only nine months away. Manufacturers claim they cannot make the required technical changes that quickly.

The idea to postpone implementation of wireless access to vehicle data ports has origins in the 2012 right-to-repair law, which the legislature later amended to commence with 2015 models. Later, an additional compromise pushed back the implementation to 2018 models. Automakers claimed that they could better equip vehicles with a standardized interface to make diagnostic information available in all 50 states by that model year.

Whatever happens with the new wireless access requirements, owners will become increasingly frustrated that they cannot repair their own vehicles or entrust the work to a mechanic of their choice. The question remains: Will the automakers ever let you own your car, really own your car, after you buy it?

Here are some updates since this article was written in December 2020:

Auto Data Lawsuit Proceeds after Judge Signals No Dismissal (Bloomberg Law)
Massachusetts AG must defend ‘Right to Repair’ Law (Indie Garage)
More Issues Surface With Right To Repair Law – Does it Pose Cybersecurity Threats? (Glass Bytes)
Fourteen States Explore Right to Repair Legislation in 2021 (Vice)
Europe Is Guaranteeing Citizens the “Right to Repair” (Next City)

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