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The Truth About Cars: Right-to-Repair Victory Forces Subaru to Tweak Things in Massachusetts

Source: Matt Posky, The Truth About Cars

Subaru of America will be canceling Starlink telematics subscriptions on all new 2022 vehicles sold in Massachusetts thanks to the state having an amended right-to-repair law that’s wildly unpopular with global automakers. If you’ve been following our coverage, Massachusetts has become ground zero for consumer advocacy groups, independent repair shops, and car buyers that have grown concerned with the industry’s increased interest in data hoarding.

The argument is that the automakers are now building vehicles that violate customer privacy — by wirelessly transmitting information back to manufacturer data farms — while also setting them up to make independent repairs nearly impossible. This resulted in an extended legal battle where the Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI) went to bat to ensure the industry retained this lucrative venture. But it was stymied by the grassroots campaign launched against it. Massachusetts’ updated law currently requires all vehicles sold within the state (from the 2022 model year onward) using telematics systems to be equipped with a standardized, open-access data platform that would allow customers and unaffiliated mechanics to gain access.

Subaru’s problem is that no such standardized system yet exists, forcing it (and eventually other brands) to have to nix its Starlink telematics offerings and related data harvesting. The AAI represents most major manufacturers, including Subaru, and has already launched a federal lawsuit on the grounds that Massachusetts rules are in conflict with national laws. U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock is expected to have made a formal ruling on the situation this month. However, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey (Ed. note — No relation that I know of.) filed a motion seeking to introduce Subaru’s cancellation as evidence in the case in October, arguing that it contradicted claims by the AAI that disabling telematics (e.g. Subaru’s Starlink or General Motors’ OnStar) would be effectively impossible and ruin their ability to sell automobiles in the state. This has reportedly slowed things down and given Woodlock more to consider.

Frankly, your author has been on the side of the right-to-repair movement since day one. I’m not in the Alliance for Automotive Innovation’s corner on this one and cannot even pretend I’m an unaffiliated party. But I do see some negative ramifications for the industry if the federal case ends up supporting Massachusetts.

For starters, the automotive industry has dumped a literal fortune into building data centers while simultaneously setting up vehicles to transmit consumer and driving data back to those information hubs. Numerous automakers (e.g. General Motors) have likewise shown presentations stating that data acquisition would soon become an important revenue source for the industry. The right-to-repair movement is throwing a massive wrench into these plans, one that would undoubtedly limit their scope. Combined with data privacy laws that are establishing a new legal precedent in California, they might even have to cancel data harvesting altogether.

While this is fine with yours truly, it does present unique problems for the kind of data companies are currently using to evolve advanced driving aids and the prospective self-driving car. But those programs all seem to be so far behind the mark already that it’s honestly a little difficult to care. The real impact will be the financial handicap that comes with an inability to harvest and then sell customer data to commercial partners. But we’re too far out to even guess what the final outcome will be. For now, it looks as though vehicles in at least one state will have to lose a few features so that customers can retain some privacy and eventually work on their vehicles without the manufacture peering over their shoulder or telling them it’s just not possible.

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