Massachusetts Subaru buyers caught up in repair right dispute – WBUR News | Car Plazas
Driving a rugged Subaru through snowy weather is a rite of passage for some New Englanders, whose region is a top market for the Japanese automaker.
So it came as a surprise to Subaru fans when Massachusetts dealerships began selling their 2022 line of vehicles without a key ingredient: the in-car wireless technology that connects drivers to music, navigation, roadside assistance, and crash-avoidance sensors.
“The dealer didn’t address it,” said Joy Tewksbury-Pabst, who bought a new Subaru Ascent without knowing it would lack the remote start and lockout features it had before trading in its 2019 model. She also lost the ability to check wiper fluid levels, tire pressure and mileage from her phone.
What’s happening in Massachusetts reflects a broader struggle over who has the “right” to fix increasingly complex electronic products — from iPhones and farm tractors to family cars.
About 75% of Massachusetts voters sided with the auto repair industry in 2020 by passing a ballot initiative designed to make it easier for car owners and their favorite auto repair shops to look into a car’s online specs. Automakers have been fighting in court ever since.
And two of them, Subaru and Kia, said that instead of violating the new law, they would disable their wireless “telematics” systems from new models in the state. Car buyers and dealers are feeling the effects.
“It’s certainly a bummer,” said Joe Clark, general manager of the Steve Lewis Subaru dealership in the western Massachusetts town of Hadley. “People call back afterwards and realize they’re missing something.”
Tewksbury-Pabst was one of more than 2.5 million people who voted for the election measure in November 2020 after a costly campaign marred by dueling TV ads. She believes it will help independent auto repair shops compete with dealerships’ in-house repair shops.
She is most frustrated with Subaru, describing his reaction to the law as “like a kid who didn’t get his way and took his ball and went home.”
Cars already have a diagnostics port that mechanics can use to pull basic repair information, but independent auto repair shops say only automakers and their dealers have access to the real-time diagnostics that cars are now wirelessly streaming. That’s becoming increasingly important given the shift to electric cars, many of which don’t have these diagnostic ports.
The law requires automakers to create an open standard for exchanging mechanical data. Subaru spokesman Dominick Infante said the “inability to comply with this provision is a disservice to both our retailers and our customers.”
“The data platform that the new law mandates to provide the data does not exist and will not exist for the foreseeable future,” he said in an email.
An auto industry trade group immediately sued state attorney general Maura Healey to prevent the law from going into effect, arguing that the schedule was unreasonable, the penalties too harsh, and the automatic disclosure of so much driver data to third parties posed cybersecurity and privacy risks.
Part of the battle is also over who gets to warn drivers and encourage them to visit when the car realizes it needs repairs. The current system favors car dealerships, which many auto repair shops fear will soon be out of business if independent mechanics aren’t given easy access to the software upgrades and mechanical data needed to make basic repairs — from tire alignment to blown seat heaters.
“If we don’t have access to repair information and diagnostic information, you’re putting an entire workforce out of business,” said Bob Lane, owner of Direct Tire & Auto Service in the Boston suburb of Watertown. “From a data perspective, if the only person who can fix a car is the dealership, the consumer has lost the choice.”
The right-to-repair movement now has a powerful ally in US President Joe Biden, who last year signed an executive order to encourage competition in the repair business and has already had some success after Apple and Microsoft began voluntarily providing repairs to consumers facilitate their own phones and laptops.
“Denial of the right to repair raises prices for consumers,” Biden said in January. “That means independent repairers can’t compete for your business.”
The Federal Trade Commission and state legislatures are also eyeing regulatory changes. It examines restrictions that draw consumers into manufacturers’ and sellers’ repair networks, increase costs to consumers and shut down independent shops, many of which are owned by entrepreneurs from poor communities. US Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois, introduced legislation this month that would allow auto repair shops to provide dealerships with the same data.
Brian Hohmann has spent decades adapting to the changes in automotive technology, from going to school to repair carburetors – now an outdated technology – to learning how to program them.
“Essentially every car today is 50 computers with four tires,” said Hohmann, owner of Accurate Automotive in the Boston suburb of Burlington. “If you are not familiar with computers, you have problems.”
But Hohmann said most independent repairers are perfectly able to compete with dealers on both repair skills and price, as long as they have the information and software access they need. This often involves purchasing expensive, automaker-specific scanners or paying for a day pass or annual subscription to gain the necessary access.
Massachusetts rules already favor independent auto repair shops more than other places, thanks to an earlier Right-to-Repair bill passed by voters in 2012. But that was before most cars began transmitting much of their important data wirelessly outside of the car – thus presenting what auto repair shops see as a loophole to existing regulations, which focus on in-car diagnostics.
Automakers argue that with permission, independent repairers can already get the data they need — but making it automatically available to third parties is dangerous.
Such data access “could spell disaster in the wrong hands,” according to the lawsuit brought by the Alliance for Automotive Innovation — a trade group backed by Ford, General Motors, Toyota and other major automakers, including Subaru and Kia.
The case is now in the hands of US District Judge Douglas Woodlock, who is considering whether to split off the most controversial electoral provision to allow the other parts to go into effect. A decision is expected in March after delays caused by actions by Subaru and Kia, which the state says the automakers should have disclosed sooner. Massachusetts lawmakers are also considering postponing the law’s effects to give automakers more time to comply.
Subaru and Kia have said most drivers can still use driving-specific Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to stream music or get navigation assistance.