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Autoweek: Here’s Why You Should Care About ‘Right to Repair’

Source: Jake Lingeman, Autoweek

Local shops want access to the data that will help fix your car.

You’ve probably heard the term “right to repair.” It’s a catchall for legislation allowing consumers to repair and modify their own devices, ranging from computers to your iPhone, tractors and your own personal vehicle. In the automotive industry, Massachusetts was the first to pass (with 86% support) the Motor Vehicle Owners’ Right to Repair in 2012, requiring manufacturers to provide the necessary documents and information to allow anyone to repair its vehicles. Automakers want you to service your vehicle at a dealership; you want to take it to the best, most cost-effective repair shop.

The 2012 bill wasn’t passed federally, but trade organizations like Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, Coalition for Auto Repair Equality, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association for Global Automakers agreed it would meet the requirement in all 50 states. Telematics data, thanks to manufacturers’ lobbying, was excluded from that earlier law. New legislation, back on the ballot in November in Massachusetts, would expand the law to include all the digital data as well.

From the ballot initiative:

“Starting with model year 2022, the proposed law would require manufacturers of motor vehicles sold in Massachusetts to equip any such vehicles that use telematics systems –- systems that collect and wirelessly transmit mechanical data to a remote server –- with a standardized open access data platform. Owners of motor vehicles with telematics systems would get access to mechanical data through a mobile device application. With vehicle owner authorization, independent repair facilities (those not affiliated with a manufacturer) and independent dealerships would be able to retrieve mechanical data from, and send commands to, the vehicle for repair, maintenance, and diagnostic testing.”

Lawmakers in 20 other states have introduced bills that would force manufacturers to share their manuals and diagnostic tools with consumers and repair shops and there was good momentum behind it, says Digital Trends. But when the pandemic hit, many of those bills went to the back burner.

We’re talking about cars here, but the same problem is happening for farmers and their tractors all over the country. Earlier this year the Minneapolis Star Tribune highlighted one farmer who needed a new tractor. Instead of buying a new, computerized one for $150K, he purchased a 1979 John Deere he could fix himself.

“This is still a really good tractor,” Kris Folland, who owns two other tractors built before 1982, told the Tribune. “They cost a fraction of the price, and then the operating costs are much less because they’re so much easier to fix.”

Like with autos, if you don’t have a computer to plug into the tractor to diagnose what’s going on, you’re stuck in a field waiting for a technician to come out from the dealer.

Apple dropped into Nebraska a few years ago to fight against another right to repair law, saying hackers would move to the state to do their hacking. Senator Lydia Brasch, who introduced the bill, was not only a farmer who had her own problems with John Deere tractors, but also has a background in computer science. Unfortunately, the bill was still killed.

The Drive notes that this Massachusetts battle has $47 million combined in lobbying behind it. The Coalition for Safe and Secure Data is leading the charge against, raising $25.9 million in donations from GM, Toyota, Ford, Honda and others. Support comes from Coalition of Automotive Repair Equality, Auto Care Association, Auto Zone, O’Reilly Auto Parts, Advance Auto Parts, and Genuine Parts Company.

We talked to Aaron Lowe, senior vice president, regulatory and government affairs for the Auto Care Association, who explained that since cars are already sending data to the manufacturers, and they’ll be sending more in the future, access to that data becomes even more critical.

“Manufacturers already fought against the telematics part,” said Lowe. “The Auto Care Association felt this issue must get addressed sooner rather than later because things are moving so fast. The Covid pandemic hit, limiting the time the legislature could meet, which meant getting it on the ballot was the best way to put it to the people.”

Manufacturers tried to squash a similar thing in the 1980s.

“Back in the ‘80s, the OBDII port was going to be closed,” said Lowe, “but it was pushed for a standardized cord that could be used by everyone. Now we’re facing the same issue. New requirements put more onus on shops and tool manufacturers. We need to continue to compete on a level playing field.”

The opposition put out an ad in Massachusetts basically claiming if the bill passes it would invite stalkers to steal your data and hunt you down in a parking lot. Seriously.

“Mechanical data is not personal data, it’s irresponsible to run an ad like that. This is really about them being able to control the data,” said Lowe.

Like the 2012 bill, this new one would force manufacturers to comply in Massachusetts, which, if they had to make structural changes, would force them to comply across the country. Being ready to do that by 2022 seems like a bit of a stretch, but Lowe explains why it really isn’t.

“A lot of the tech is ready, though they’d have to standardize the system. The technology is all there to make it happen. Most people don’t even know that their car is transmitting data. This ballot question at least adds more awareness. People should be able to know and control this data.”

We contacted one of the opposition sides at the Alliance for Automotive Innovation and have yet to hear back. But another opposition group, the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, did highlight a recent piece in the Boston Globe on its website about the initiative. Those groups say their biggest concern is security.

The story quoted Bryan Reimer, a research scientist in transportation and logistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who said, “The way it’s written, the cybersecurity issues here are nuts.”

The piece posits that every car on the road shouldn’t be connected to a single network. NHTSA sent a letter to Massachusetts lawmakers warning “that the scheme is inherently risky because it creates a single point of failure. If a hacker manages to compromise the Ford telematics network, he’d only be able to sabotage Fords. Hack a unified system, and the attacker could sabotage cars of every make and model.”

Reimer also challenges the ACA and Lowe’s assertion that carmakers can create the new system in the time allotted.

“The timeline this bill calls for is ludicrous,” Reimer said. He added that if he were a carmaker and Question 1 passed, “I’m just not selling model 2022 cars in the state of Massachusetts.”

Conor Yunits, senior vice president at Solomon McCown & Cence and spokesperson for the opposition to question 1 says that the telematic data needed is already available to repair shops and that creating a new open access platform would add unnecessary risks.

“They want to expand the definition of mechanical data, but who will be securing it? Who’s the guardian?” Said Yunits.

Lowe says that’s not the case, and he points to the bill’s wording as evidence.

To get it on the ballot, first the language had to be approved by the attorney general, then the ACA needed 86,000 signatures, which was easy before Covid. The legislature then had the opportunity to pass the ballot measure on their own. “If they don’t take action then we had to collect another 13,000 signatures to actually be approved for the ballot. We turned in about 27,000,” said Lowe.

Yunits also noted that when the ACA demonstrated what it would want at SEMA last year, it included things like navigation data. He also said that language stating it wouldn’t collect any of this data should have been written into the question. In Massachusetts both sides of an initiative don’t need to agree on the wording, and this was written by the ACA.

Lowe says at SEMA the ACA was only demonstrating how to cybersecurely transfer the data.

We contacted both GM and Toyota for this story, to see if creating this open source network would be possible by 2022, neither have responded.

As for the data, we all trust our data to many different outfits, multiple times a day. Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Google, American Express and Verizon all know more about you than you know about yourself. If adding repair shops to the list helps my neighborhood specialist fix my car promptly and cheaply, I’m all for it. Just one more thing to pay attention to on November 3.

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