August 5, 2021

Massachusetts “Right to Repair” Explained

4 min read

Right to Repair Again?

On November 3, 2020, Massachusetts voters must decide whether or not to approve yet another “Right to Repair” law. In 2012, the State’s voters approved a law that required vehicle manufactures to “provide access to their diagnostic and repair information system.” As a result, with the necessary equipment, independent mechanics and car owners can plug into a vehicle’s computer system and check for various mechanical issues.

However, proponents now argue that technological progress in vehicle mechanical data systems – specifically something known as “telematics” – requires the adoption of a new Right to Repair law.

What is “Telematics”?

Telematics refers to real-time data base systems that “send, receive, and store” vehicle data. Those who have access to telematic systems are able to view a vehicle’s current mechanical issues as well as any deteriorating parts that could cause future problems.

Currently, access to telematic systems is limited to manufacturers of motor vehicles. According to Callum Borchers of National Public Radio, these manufacturers “can notify you in an email or even a message right on your dashboard” if there is a potential problem with your vehicle. “And there’s a decent chance that alert will come with an offer to schedule maintenance…at the dealer that sold you the car in the first place.”

What Would Change?

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy explains that, under the proposed law, vehicle manufacturers would be required “to equip any such vehicles that use telematics systems…with a standardized open access data platform,” beginning with the model year 2022, that could be accessed by vehicle owners. Independent repair facilities and independent dealerships would also be able to access their vehicle’s mechanical data with the owner’s authorization.

Vehicle owners would be able to access their real-time mechanical data via a phone application, while repair facilities and dealerships would “be able to retrieve mechanical data from, and send commands to, the vehicle for repair, maintenance, and diagnostic testing.”

Proponents of Right to Repair

Tom Hickey, director of the Massachusetts Right to Repair committee, argues that “A YES vote for Right to Repair will guarantee that as technology advances, drivers can continue to get their cars repaired where they want.” Hickey urges voters to “Vote YES to protect independent repair shops and preserve your ability to shop around.”

Although the current telematics systems do not literally restrict consumers’ abilities “to shop around,” proponents of Right to Repair argue that limiting system access to automakers gives them a strong competitive advantage over local, independent businesses. Barry Steinberg, president of Direct Tire and Auto Service repair shops, believes that if independent repair shops are not given access to these systems, “the consumer loses.”

Opponents of Right to Repair

On the other hand, Steve McElhinney of Coalition for Safe and Secure Data claims, “Question has nothing to do with fixing cars. It is a data grab by third parties who want to gather your personal vehicle information and access it remotely, including location data in real time.”

Although the proposed law specifically refers to “mechanical data related to vehicle maintenance,” McElhinney argues that this could be broadly interpreted to include location and personal information.

Opponents Receive Boost from the Federal Government

Opponents of the proposed Right to Repair law were encouraged when James Owens, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), sent a letter to a cochairmen of the Massachusetts Legislature’s consumer protection committee outlining its potential “cybersecurity risks.”

Owens claims that the ballot’s “requirement to establish universal and standardized access requirements increases the scale of risks of any potentially successful cybersecurity attack.” He goes on to assert that an increase in the use of telematics “introduces new and different risks to motor vehicle safety,” with the primary concern being “a software vulnerability” that could potentially be “used by malicious actors to cause a crash or incident.”

Hickey countered Owens’ letter, labeling it an unreasonable act of federal power on state affairs in order to protect the large and powerful automobile industry. When asked about the letter by The Boston Globe, Hickey responded, “It shows the awesome power of the automakers in Washington and…the Trump administration that the NHTSA would weigh in erroneously about a Massachusetts consumer issue this quickly and without consulting the sponsors and its experts.”

Paul Feeney, cochairmen of the consumer protection committee to which Owens’ letter was sent, acknowledges the legitimacy of to both arguments. “It’s about protecting consumers’ rights to where they want to go,” said Feeney, “but striking the right balance to make sure the data is safe and protected.

General Voting Information

The 2020 State and Federal Election will take place on November 3rd. Massachusetts polling stations will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and early voting will be held October 17- 30. Voting-by mail is available for all Massachusetts residents, “with no excuses required.” All mail-in ballots must be postmarked by November 3rd and must reach local election offices by November 6th.

To register to vote, visit www.RegisterToVoteMA.com. For more information, including how to acquire a Mail-In Voter Registration Form, please visit www.sec.state.ma/ele.  

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