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Boston Globe: U.S. to Allow Partial Enforcement of Mass. Right-to-Repair Law

Source: Hiawatha Bray, Boston Globe

The federal government says there’s a way automakers can comply with Massachusetts’ controversial automotive right-to-repair law without violating federal law. But the new plan proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dramatically limits the scope of the original law, and might not be implemented for years.

The Massachusetts Data Access Law, passed by referendum in 2020, would require carmakers that sell vehicles in Massachusetts to provide wireless access to the car’s “telematics” – the software and data stored on the vehicle. This would let independent car repair shops compete on an equal footing with factory-authorized shops, which already have access to the data.

In June, NHTSA warned carmakers not to comply with the law, saying it would weaken cybersecurity protections for automotive computer networks, raising the risk that hackers could remotely steal sensitive data or even seize remote control of vehicles. The NHTSA declaration spawned an angry response from Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, who demanded to know why the agency had waited more than two years to raise this objection.

But NHTSA now says carmakers can obey the law by providing wireless access to cars through short-range Bluetooth radio connections instead of longer-range cellular networks. Because a Bluetooth connection only works within a few feet of the car, the risk of criminal intrusion is far lower.

“A solution like this one, if implemented with appropriate care, would significantly reduce the cybersecurity risks – and therefore the safety risks – associated with remote access,” NHTSA said in a letter on Tuesday.

Senators Warren and Markey issued a joint statement praising NHTSA’s change of heart. “Today’s action will not only help to ease burdens and lower costs for Massachusetts drivers, but also ensure that transportation regulators continue to build on the promise of the Biden administration’s pro-competition, pro-consumer agenda,” they said.

But the proposal raises significant challenges. Carmakers will have to adopt new telematic systems with Bluetooth radios for transmitting the data. Because vehicles are designed years in advance, it could be a long time before this feature is implemented.

“It is our understanding that some period of compliance will be needed,” said Massachusetts First Assistant Attorney General Pat Moore.

In addition, the Bluetooth compromise undercuts a key goal for independent repair shops – the ability to get full-time access to their customers’ digital data.

Cars with telematic systems transmit diagnostic data to the manufacturers in real time over a cellular connection. Carmakers can use this data to spot potential problems, and sell maintenance and repair services to car owners. Independent repair shops say this gives the factory-backed dealers an unfair advantage over independent shops.

The Massachusetts law was supposed to give independents equal access to data, so a car owner could choose to send telematic data to a local mechanic instead of a dealership. But if telematic data is offered only through short -range Bluetooth connections, mechanics only get access when the car is in the shop.

Justin Rzepka, executive director of the CAR Coalition, an organization of insurance and auto parts retailers, praised the NHTSA’s policy shift, but added that “their solution is wholly inadequate and is no substitute for a federal vehicle right-to-repair law.” Rzepka’s group backs federal legislation that would give consumers and independent shops full long-range access to telematic data.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a coalition of carmakers who have sued to block the Massachusetts law, declined to comment on the NHTSA decision.

Apart from the NHTSA dispute, the Massachusetts law has been tied up in federal court ever since it was enacted. It’s unclear when the case will be decided. Despite this, Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell has said she intends to begin enforcing the law, though her office has taken no action so far.

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