A lot of data is transmitted wirelessly today. As a result, independent mechanics and right-to-repair advocates fear automakers will stop sending critical repair information to diagnostic ports. That would hamper the self-employed and tie customers into relationships with dealers. Independent mechanics worry automakers could potentially “block what they want” when an independent repairer tries to access a car’s engineered guts, Glenn Wilder, the owner of an auto and tire repair shop in Scituate, Massachusetts, told lawmakers in the year 2020.
The fight could have national ramifications not just for the auto industry, but for any device that transmits data to its manufacturer after a customer has paid money and walked out of the sales counter. “I see it as ‘Right to Repair 2.0,'” says Kyle Wiens, a longtime advocate for the right to repair and founder of iFixit, a website that offers tools and repair guides. “The car world is further along than the rest of the world,” says Wiens. Independents “already have access to information and sharing. Now they’re talking about data streams. But that doesn’t make the fight any less important.”
Automakers say making the car’s mechanical data available to anyone would be dangerous — and a violation of federal law. In November 2020, shortly after voters approved the voting measure, a trade group representing most major automakers sued Massachusetts in federal court. The group, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, argued that the federal government, not the states, should control who gets access to cars’ telematics systems. The group also said it would be irresponsible and dangerous to create the open data platform required by law, especially by 2022. The Massachusetts Right to Repair Committee, which represents more than 1,600 repair shops in Massachusetts, says automakers have plenty of time to prepare. Last summer, the Biden administration directed the Federal Trade Commission to write rules that would make it easier for consumers to access their own data and repair tools. Proponents hope the rules will apply to vehicles.
Josh Siegel, an assistant professor of engineering at Michigan State University who studies connected car security, says automakers may be right and the system envisaged by the law may not be technically feasible. Siegel says the voting measure may be “well intentioned” but was not “written with a full understanding of the complexities of automotive telematics systems.” These systems not only provide access to data on what is broken and why, but also to the driver assistance systems that enable emergency braking and elements of the drive-by-wire system that help drivers control their car. It was unrealistic to ask car manufacturers to set up a secure and open telematics system in just a few months, says Siegel.
“I think they could create a platform that meets some of the requirements of the legislation,” he says, “but I wouldn’t want it in my own car.”
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation declined to comment, citing the lawsuit. But at a 2020 hearing, a representative for the group argued that independent repairers wanted access to vehicle data not only to perform repairs, but also to advertise and sell to customers.
Traders are caught in the middle. It’s a particularly unfortunate time to be there, given the chip shortages that have limited vehicle production — and sales. “Ashamed of the manufacturers for not standing up and being part of the conversation,” said Bob O’Koniewski, executive vice president of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association. But he’s also furious with the independent repair industry, accusing it of “stealing money.” His group has authored two bills currently under consideration in the Massachusetts legislature that would give automakers until 2025 to comply with the Open Data Platforms Act.
For Siegel, the controversy points to a bigger and fuzzier question about whether consumers understand how much data is flowing from their vehicles and where it’s going. There is money to be made from a car’s GPS location, temperature data, biometric information and data on key parts. A few years ago, Siegel and his colleagues estimated that the US data market for connected cars could be worth as much as $92 billion, with everyone from manufacturers and parts suppliers to dealers and insurers racing for a share. “The most important thing is to show people their own breadcrumbs,” says Siegel.
For Marc Ferrelli, owner of the Massachusetts Subaru, the lesson is clear. “Shit being us,” he says. Just before he bought the car, the dealer asked him, “Don’t you have any friends in Rhode Island whose addresses you can use?”
Updated 2-3-10, 6 PM ET: A previous version of this article misspelled Marc Ferrelli’s first name, Mark.
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