After 2020 ballot question, Right to Repair still tied up in court

Law was supposed to take effect in 2022

IN NOVEMBER 2020, Massachusetts voters passed a ballot question that would expand the state’s Right to Repair law. Three-quarters of voters agreed that car manufacturers need to give telematic data – data obtained by the manufacturer through a wireless transmitter in a car – to independent repair shops if the information is needed to do repair or maintenance work.

The expensive ballot fight had pitted independent car repair shops against auto manufacturers. The repair shops said that as the technology in cars has advanced, with the installation of more complex wireless systems, existing state law governing auto repair needed to be updated to ensure independent garages could access the information needed to fix newer cars. Car manufacturers countered that an initial 2012 Right to Repair law already gave independent repair shops all the information they need. The manufacturers said that more sharing of wireless data could put drivers’ personal information at risk if, for example, a hacker were able to access it.

The law was supposed to go into effect for model year 2022. But major car manufacturers, through the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, challenged the law in federal court. Attorney General Maura Healey postponed implementation until the lawsuit was resolved.

The carmakers said the new law would introduce cybersecurity risks, since sharing data would make systems more susceptible to hackers, and the time frame was too tight to be able to take steps to mitigate those risks. They said current law already gives independent repair shops all the information they need to make repairs, and the new law would imperil consumer privacy and public safety.

Now, as car manufacturers get closer to releasing their 2023 cars, proponents of the ballot question are getting increasingly impatient that a federal judge has not yet issued his ruling.

“We’re pretty frustrated,” said Tommy Hickey, director of the Right to Repair Coalition, which supported the ballot question. “It’s been over a year and half since we had a 75 percent vote.” Hickey said model 2022 cars are on the road now, and as they come off warranties, independent repair shops will need telematic information to repair them.

A trial in the case was held in June 2021 before US District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock. One of the arguments made by automakers was that the deadline of model year 2022 cars was impossible to meet. 

In the fall of 2021, before Woodlock ruled, Healey asked him to reopen the case and consider new evidence showing that two car companies had complied with the 2022 deadline simply by turning off telematic data capabilities in model year 2022 cars sold in Massachusetts. These are features like Subaru’s StarLink, which connects a car to a smartphone and includes features like remote engine starting and vehicle speed alerts. The case was reopened, and the new evidence was considered.

In April 2022, Woodlock said he would rule by July 1, 2022. But then, he pushed off his ruling again, citing unforeseen scheduling complications and implications of the US Supreme Court’s decision in a recently decided case regarding the US Environmental Protection Agency. (He did not discuss what those implications were.)

Healey’s office declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the group representing car makers, did not respond to a request for comment on the delays.

Brian Hohmann, owner of Burlington Accurate Automotive and a ballot question supporter, said one area where the issue has come up relates to the electric car Tesla. All cars that emit greenhouse gasses are required to have a port where a repair shop can plug in and obtain emissions and other information about the car. But electric cars like Tesla have no port because they have no emissions, so Hohmann said he needs telematic data to get any information about how to repair a Tesla.

Hohmann said independent car repair shops continue to struggle, and he sees colleagues going out of business. “The longer this gets stalled, the more guys that say enough, and they throw their hands up and get out,” Hohmann said.

 

Hohmann said he has no idea why the judge is dragging his feet. “I don’t know what the thing is about the little black robes they wear,” he said. “They’re not God but they act like it.”