As the world watched while the United States decided who would become the next leader of the free world, Massachusetts was also voting on a less watched but highly important proposition: Whether or not the spirit of the state’s landmark right-to-repair legislation would be maintained.
Question 1 passed with a resounding 74.9 percent of the vote, a celebrated victory for consumer rights advocates and a bitter defeat for automakers and some data security proponents.
Right to repair is the notion that, and movement for, ensuring consumers have the ability to repair and modify things they’ve bought themselves or through a repair shop of their choosing. In Massachusetts, the law is chiefly concerned with car repair.
In 2013, Massachusetts passed an automotive right to repair law that gave independent repair shops the same access as dealers to vehicle information that’s used to diagnose and ultimately repair problems. That law ultimately led to a national standard.
However, the 2013 law left out wireless telematics data — real-time updates from a car’s various sensors that transmit data to manufacturers’ private servers, as Rob Stumpf explains in The Drive.
This data was previously delivered through physical ports that individuals and repair shops could access, but as cars have become more computerized, more data is sent wirelessly to first-party dealers and no one else.
“Eight years ago, [telematics was used for] little more than OnStar. Here we are in 2020 and the platform for telematics is being used for repairs and everyday reports,” says Glenn Wilder of Wilder Brothers Tires down the coast from Boston in North Scituate, Massachusetts. “It leaves independent repairers at a disadvantage to not be in that loop,” he says.
Wilder sees the passing of Question 1 as a win for both small businesses like his and consumers.
“It’s honestly basic economics,” says Tommy Hickey, now director of the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition after serving as the grassroots coordinator in the years leading up to the 2013 law.
Without there being independent repairs, people are forced into dealerships and when there’s only one option, convenience goes down and prices go up. Making sure that independent repairers are allowed to evolve as cars evolve is of the utmost importance, otherwise [automakers] get to circumvent a law that voters passed by 86 percent,” Hickey says, referring to the original 2013 question.
It’s also good for small businesses. In 2020, there were roughly 233,400 repair shops in the United States, a 1.7 percent increase from the year before.
The passing of Question 1 requires that, by model year 2022, manufacturers that sell vehicles with telematics systems in Massachusetts outfit them with a standardized, open data platform. It’s this platform that makes the vehicle data directly accessible to owners and independent repairers, affording them the ability to pull important mechanical data and run diagnostics.
This concerns some in the data security community, like MIT’s Bryan Reimer. He’s concerned with data security — the central argument of one of Question 1’s most staunch opponents, the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, backed by donations from manufacturers like Toyota and Ford.
“We’re talking about highly complicated mechanical and software systems that can’t be separated from fundamental vehicle safety anymore,” he says. Reimer questions where the liability will lie when repairs impact safety — who is responsible if a repair leads to the malfunctioning of a safety component? — as well as any vulnerabilities the data transfer process at independent repair shops could open up to hacks. An October report from the Tufts Center for State Policy Analysis found that data privacy concerns are minimal as long as location data and personal information are not among the categories of data the law requires carmakers to hand over.
Ultimately Reimer sees the issue as more of a lack of enforcement of the 2013 law when it comes to violators like Tesla rather than a need to change what’s on the books.
In the meantime, Massachusetts voters have afforded themselves the continued car equivalent of the ability to choose a cheaper, unbranded iPhone cord to charge your phone and transfer its contents rather than pay the markup for an Apple cord.
“The idea that your local repair guy is going to use your data for some ill purposes is not well conceived. Right now, the dealership has all that information. Who do you trust more — a dealership or your local guy that knows your name and who you are?” Wilder wonders.
Cinnamon Janzer is a freelance journalist based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared National Geographic, U.S. News & World Report, Rewire.news, and more. She holds an MA in Social Design, with a specialization in intervention design, from the Maryland Institute College of Art and a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Fine Art from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.