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The Patriot Ledger: Massachusetts Right to Repair Returns, Eyes Telematics Data

Source: William J. Dowd, The Patriot Ledger

Adoption of Question 1 on the Tuesday, Nov. 3, ballot could over time shift a large section of the auto-repair business from manufacturer-run dealerships toward third-party chains and independent car-repair garages.

A “yes” vote supports giving independent repair shops access to what is called telematics data, information generated by sensors in newer vehicles and wirelessly transmitted to isolated servers that only automakers can access. Telematics systems cull the vital signs of motor vehicles and, among other capabilities, alert automakers when they require maintenance.

“Telematic systems have the capability to give you a breakdown of how your car is operating and performing in real time,” said Tommy Hickey, the director of Massachusetts Right to Repair, the group behind the Yes on 1 campaign.

A “no” vote maintains the status quo whereby auto manufacturers exclusively keep the telematic data for themselves and their authorized dealerships.

Automobile companies and third-party repair outfits are battling over the ballot question, pumping over $41 million into their dueling campaigns and TV advertisements, according to ballotpedia.com, which shows $15.7 million raised for proponents and $25.8 million for opponents.

The Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition, backed by national repair chains and independent repair groups, argues passage levels the playing field of an unfair monopoly on repair, maintenance and diagnostic testing once telematics systems become ubiquitous.

The Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, the campaign’s opposition backed by big automakers, argues passage will compromise car owners’ personal data. Drivers will be vulnerable to domestic violence, stalkers and sexual predators, the coalition argues.

Question 1 is a follow up to the right to repair referendum that 87 percent of Massachusetts voters adopted in 2012. That first-in-the-nation piece of legislation, was implemented in 2013, forcing automakers to supply Massachusetts independent repair shops access to the same vehicle diagnostic and repair information available to their authorized dealerships.

“Independent repair shops were getting worse information than dealerships,” said Hickey. “After the ballot passed in 2012, consumers could get their cars completely fixed where they wanted rather than go to expensive dealerships.”

Now, nearly seven years later, Question 1′s adoption would close loopholes in the 2013 state law that exempts independent mechanics from accessing telematics data. Hickey said 90 percent of manufactured vehicles in 2020 are equipped with telematics systems.

If the ballot question passes, automakers that sell vehicles with telematics systems in Massachusetts must outfit them with open-access platforms starting with model year 2022. With the platforms in place, independent mechanics, with a vehicle owner’s permission, may retrieve mechanical data and run diagnostics through a smartphone-based application.

“If you create an open access platform, you create an entry point that is incredibly easy for hackers to exploit,” said Conor Yunits, spokesperson for the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data.

Proponents, Yunits said, paint a too-good-to-be-true picture.

“What I hear is consumers and local mechanics are being told by the ‘yes’ side that their problems will be fixed if Question 1 passes,” said Yunits. “The reality is it will not change any of these problems, because they are already covered under the law.”

Hickey, on the other side, said automakers want to limit car owners’ choices.

“If you have a newer car, imagine your check-engine light comes on, and you need to get your car repaired,” said Hickey. “You and your mechanic, whom you trust, should have access to the data to diagnose what’s wrong the vehicle.”

Question 1 is more about the future than the present, Paul Roberts, a cyber security expert, told WCVB-TV, Wicked Local’s news partner.

“As far as we know, the data that is being shared wirelessly…is the same data that repair people can get via the [on-board diagnostic] port under [a car’s] dashboard,” said Roberts.

Roberts, however, backs right to repair because the data under the dashboard may not reside there in the future. He called the ballot question forward thinking because it ensures access to telematics data no matter where it lives.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.

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