The US government agency overseeing car safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, recently warned automakers to refrain from abiding by a nearly three-year-old state law that calls for them to share vehicle data with owners and independent auto repair shops.
A government attorney warned in a letter that granting consumers and mechanics access to the vehicle systems may also make them vulnerable in front of the threat actors, who could then access the car’s steering, acceleration, braking, or electronics systems.
When Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot measure allowing people to fix their cars in 2020, the dispute began. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade association for international automakers, filed a lawsuit to stop the rule from going into effect. It claimed that the statute put Massachusetts’s vehicles in danger of manipulation and was preempted by federal vehicle safety regulations, making it an unassailable matter for the state’s voters. The federal judge presiding over the lawsuit has not yet decided on the case, and so far, the federal government has kept quiet about it.
The right-to-repair movement is currently facing yet another setback. While the state claims that the law benefits all types of car buyers, the federal authorities deem the reform hazardous for auto safety.
What does the recent development in the right-to-repair case mean for car owners, mechanics, and dealers in the state? Confusion reigns at this stage.
“Massachusetts consumers don’t know their rights because of how long this is taking,” said Tommy Hickey, the director of the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition (and currently, a Maine group attempting to enact a similar law there), while interacting with the media. In the meantime, new automobile owners in Massachusetts have been left without access to safety and comfort amenities due to the legal dispute.
In defiance of the legal impasse, the Massachusetts attorney general sent documents to new car buyers on June 1 advising them of their legal right to access any technical data generated by their cars to assist with diagnosis, maintenance, and repairs. First Assistant Attorney General for Massachusetts, Pat Moore, questioned the timing of the federal government’s intervention in the matter in a statement.
Fed stance at odds
The federal government’s stance in Massachusetts is at odds with its overall views on the right to repair. President Joe Biden directed the Federal Trade Commission to draft new regulations in 2021 that would make it more difficult for manufacturers to restrict who can fix their products.
Who owns the mountains of data generated by 21st century’s increasingly software- and computer-chip-enabled cars? This is a basic question that Massachusetts tried to address amid the conflicting letters, claims, and legal documents.
For many years, the auto sector was praised as an example of one practising the right to repair, which is the theory that once you buy a product, you get to choose how to restore it. Car repair has traditionally been the purview of the do-it-yourselfer. Due to this, aftermarket component producers and independent car repair businesses have made billions of dollars in tuning and servicing vehicles.
Massachusetts voters were the first to modernize the idea in 2012 when they mandated that automakers include an onboard port allowing anyone with a low-cost gadget to access a car’s data.
Automakers promised independent repairers and owners access to the equipment and software provided to their own franchised dealerships under the terms of a nationwide agreement made possible by the law.
Since then, however, the auto industry has moved online, and almost all new cars now come equipped with a telematics system that gathers data on how they are operating, including how quickly they are travelling, where they are going, how hard the driver is braking, and whether or not everything in the car is functioning properly. Since this information can be transferred wirelessly, several automakers claim they no longer need to include an onboard connection in their automobiles.
Owners and managers of repair facilities are concerned that the auto industry will use these developments to restrict access to the data required to diagnose and fix automobiles and instead direct repair work to their franchise dealerships. In Massachusetts, 75% of voters approved the ballot item granting the updated right to repair after concluding that new technology and the possible gaps it generated required a new statute.
“Everything that your car does—all of the data it generates and all of the functions it has after you buy it—that belongs to you,” asserts Nathan Proctor, who oversees the Right to Repair campaign at the US Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy group.
Automobile manufacturers shouldn’t be able to bind you to their services. According to him, the continuous conflict in Massachusetts is “very frustrating.”
However, the auto industry and the US Department of Transportation have stated that they think it is risky to allow more people access to car data. The Massachusetts law compelled them to establish an open data platform too rapidly, according to the industry, which put security in danger, according to the complaint brought by the ‘Alliance for Automotive Innovation’ in 2020.
The automakers may be correct—to a point, according to Josh Siegel, an assistant professor of engineering at Michigan State University who specializes in connected-car security. The Massachusetts law gave the sector around a year to develop an open data platform, which was probably insufficient time to establish a secure system. He claims that hastily put-together available telemetry systems may enable illegal access and control.
Open systems hazardous
The present position of the federal government contends that open systems are hazardous regardless of how well they are constructed. They are said to be harmful by nature. However, Siegel disputes this. He asserts that everyone—right-to-repair proponents, specialists in car safety and cybersecurity, and manufacturers—can work together to create a data-sharing mechanism. It should be “designed with the needs of the public and manufacturers in mind and with care and attention paid to security from the start,” as he argues that one standard should be created for the entire US.
Beyond disagreements over law and policy, Massachusetts has had odd practical repercussions from the struggle between the state, the auto industry, and the federal government. Kia and Subaru decided to deny new car buyers in the state access to their telematics systems starting in 2021. The automakers claimed they took this action to comply with the law. They argued that because the open data platform required by the law did not yet exist, the only option to do so was to restrict access to their telematics systems completely.
Because of this, Massachusetts automobile purchasers who invest in the newest models cannot use Kia Connect, which offers remote climate control and stolen vehicle recovery, or Subaru’s Starlink service, which includes emergency roadside assistance and remote start.
Subaru and Kia owners in the state are unhappy with the issue, which doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. The NHTSA advised automakers against following Subaru and Kia’s example and turning off their telematics systems in Massachusetts. It did so because some safety features “could facilitate better emergency response in the event of a vehicle crash.” Dominick Infante, a representative for Subaru, claims that the carmaker isn’t altering its position.
He claimed that compliance with the Massachusetts Data Law is impossible for any automaker. Subaru maintains its commitment to giving customers a choice in auto maintenance.
A Kia representative declined to comment and asked the ‘Alliance for Automotive Innovation’, the company’s trade association, which also refused to comment on ongoing legal matters.
Everyone will now wait for the Massachusetts judge to make the final decision regarding the statute that the state’s people approved—as well as the future of auto repair in Massachusetts, the US, and elsewhere.
While Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly supported the right-to-repair ballot measure, the ‘Alliance for Automotive Innovation’ filed a lawsuit to stop the rule from going into effect, claiming it put vehicles at risk of manipulation and was preempted by federal vehicle safety regulations. The federal judge presiding over the lawsuit has yet to decide on the case, leaving car owners and mechanics confused and frustrated.