Asleep at the Wheel: Why Didn’t Carmakers Prepare for Massachusetts’ Right to Repair Law?

The people of Massachusetts demanded their right to repair this month, passing a ballot initiative to allow independent repair shops to access critical information about their cars by an overwhelming 74.9% majority. Now, automakers—whose scare tactics and false privacy and security claims did not fool Massachusetts voters—are expected to use another known tactic from their playbook and ask the legislature to delay implementing that law for years to come by saying the timeline is too tight.

That’s simply unacceptable. EFF stands behind the right to repair: If you bought it, you own it. You have the right to fix it yourself or take it to the repair shop of your choosing. Manufacturers often want to keep their customers tied to them long after a sale is done, and clearly are not above using whatever tactics they can to keep it that way. The people of Massachusetts didn’t fall for it. Neither should the legislature.

A Little History

Massachusetts has a long history of standing up for the right to repair. In 2012, the state voted by initiative to protect the right of drivers to take their cars to independent mechanics, rather than forcing everyone to go to the service depots run by manufacturers. Yet, since that law went into effect, manufacturers worked to erode that right to repair, redesigning their products in ways that took repair choices from drivers yet again.

This year, voters hit back by approving a new ballot initiative that requires vehicles with a telematics platform—software that collects and transmits diagnostic information about your car—to install an open data platform.

This initiative was popular throughout the election season and passed with overwhelming support from the people of Massachusetts, with nearly three-quarters of voters saying loud and clear that they demand a choice over who repairs their vehicles. If automakers were taken by surprise, it’s simply because they weren’t paying attention.

It’s been nearly three years since the Auto Care Association unveiled its secure vehicle interface standard, which combines three well-established ISO standards to create a secure, interoperable means of gathering vehicle telemetry and sharing it with the mechanic of the driver’s choosing.

The original Right to Repair measure was voted in by Bay Staters in 2012 with a 74% majority. The manufacturers immediately set about redesigning their vehicles to subvert the popular will. The State of Massachusetts has been boiling with rage at this maneuver ever since. It was clear from the start that the new initiative would pass as well.

And yet, the manufacturers are crying that they’ve been asleep at the wheel all this time, and will need years to retool to comply with this incredibly popular law.

Big Car should have been supporting interoperable, standardized access to telemetry from the start. The companies have no one to blame but themselves if they find themselves unprepared for this moment. We should treat their tactical claims of surprise with skepticism.

But even if you accept that the car makers have neglected to prepare for this moment, we should still be skeptical of their claim that it will take years to retool their vehicles to support the standard. This is not new hardware—it’s a new, well-specified data-format for existing sensors in vehicles. If Tesla can provide over-the-air software updates for its vehicles’ suspension and FordPass can adjust engine parameters in real time, then there’s no good reason that car makers can’t output a standardized datastream from their sensor-packages.

We’re willing to believe that bringing new cars into compliance with the law will cost the manufacturers, and clearly any manufacturer that chose not to prepare for this absolutely foreseeable situation will have to shell out for overtime and other additional expenses. To the extent that those additional costs are a penalty, it’s a penalty the car makers have imposed on themselves—and it’s a just penalty.

Stop Pumping the Brakes

Question 1 takes another good step toward affirming the right to repair in Massachusetts, and EFF looks forward to building on this law in the coming years. Automakers and legislatures should not delay that progress, but rather work with these communities to craft policy that encourages responsible data collection, improves access, and strengthens security.

The repair community has worked in good faith with car manufacturers over the years to find solutions that give consumers choices without compromising in ways that hurt their safety or privacy. We urge the legislature to do their jobs and listen to their voters, rather than rewarding automakers who subverted an incredibly popular law, extracted undeserved profits from the people of  Massachusetts, and then mulishly refused to prepare for the absolute pasting they were obviously going to get when Bay Staters went back to the ballot box in 2020. 

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Author: Hayley Tsukayama

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