Right to repair ballot question passes, but implementation a concern

Tight time frame for 2022 cars may be hard to meet

MASSACHUSETTS VOTERS on Tuesday voted to expand the state’s Right to Repair law and require car manufacturers to provide more information to independent repair shops.

The passage of the ballot question raises questions about how the new law will be implemented on a tight time frame – whether the Legislature will step in and tweak the law, or even whether some cars may be unavailable to Massachusetts buyers next year.

In a video message declaring victory released just after 9 p.m., Tommy Hickey, director of the Massachusetts Right to Repair campaign, said, “By voting yes on 1, Massachusetts has now updated Right to Repair for the modern age of connected cars.”

In a statement sent out 45 minutes later, the No on One campaign issued a statement appearing to concede the election, without indicating their next steps. The statement said the ability of local repair shops to access the information they need to repair a car was already enshrined in law. “Today’s vote will do nothing to enhance that right – it will only grant real time, two-way access to your vehicle and increase risk,” the campaign said.

With 57 percent of precincts reporting, Right to Repair was ahead with 75 percent of the vote.

The victory also marks the first salvo in what is likely to become a national fight. “I definitely anticipate other states filing legislation,” Hickey said in an interview.

Massachusetts, in 2012, passed a ballot question that required car manufacturers to share all repair and diagnostic information with independent repair shops so someone can take their car to be fixed anywhere they want.

The 2020 ballot question extends that to telematic data, which is information transmitted wirelessly. It requires manufacturers to create a new open access data platform built into each car, beginning with 2022 models, through which consumers and their mechanics could use a mobile app to access telematic data. The exact data referred to in the question is not well-defined, but it could include things like automatic notifications that a car’s brakes are wearing out.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a car manufacturer trade group, already wrote to Congress complaining about the cybersecurity dangers of the Massachusetts ballot question and asking Congress to impose a five-year moratorium on state-level actions regarding access to telematic data to allow for the creation of a national policy. Hickey said he anticipates the ballot question could convince Congress to have the broader conversation about what access consumers should have to their personal data.

The ballot fight was an expensive battle between car manufacturers on one side and car repair shops and auto parts shops on the other. Car manufacturers and their trade group contributed $26 million to defeat the ballot question. Backers of the question gave $24 million and included auto parts chains like Advance Auto Parts, O’Reilly Auto Parts, and Valvoline, and trade associations representing independent repair shops, like the Auto Care Association and the Coalition of Auto Repair Equality.

The Right to Repair committee argued that this update of the 2012 law was necessary to ensure people could continue getting their cars fixed anywhere. Opponents argued that it would put individuals’ personal data at risk by making it more likely that a hacker could gain access to a car’s data – including, for example, real-time driving behavior or GPS tracking information.

Now that the ballot question has passed, a major question is the time frame for implementation. The ballot question is set to go into effect for 2022 models. But legally, sales of model 2022 cars can begin in January 2021. Practically, these cars would typically come out in the spring or fall of 2021 – so they are already well into development.

“It’s not like they have two years to figure this out. They’ve got to figure it out before they can sell new cars in Massachusetts beginning next year,” said Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, the committee opposing the ballot question.

Hickey said he expects carmakers to comply with the time frame laid out in the new law, given that car manufacturers already collect the information and give it to dealerships, just in a proprietary way. “The technology already exists to create an open and standardized platform,” Hickey said.

Hickey brushed off cybersecurity concerns by calling them a “scare tactic,” saying the mechanical information covered by the new law is information that’s already being collected and made accessible to mechanics, just through the car’s port.

Evan Horowitz, executive director of the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, said he thinks the Legislature – which often changes ballot questions after they pass — will have to step in, if only to extend the implementation date. “I do think the Legislature will have to think seriously about the timelines for implementation, which are exceptionally tight, maybe unmanageably so,” Horowitz said.

Horowitz said it will take time for car manufacturers to engineer a system that is accessible to consumers through a mobile application, as is required by the ballot question, and also keeps the data secure. “I don’t think anyone is pushing for a change that will be made excessively quickly and dangerously so it doesn’t allow time for testing of a new system,” he said.

After the 2012 ballot question passed, car manufacturers signed a memo agreeing to build cars to the Massachusetts standard nationwide. That resulted in a port being put in each car that a mechanic can plug into to get repair information.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

While that could happen again, Horowitz said this time, car manufacturers seem less inclined to go along with the mandate without a legal fight. “I do think you’ll see some kind of countermove from auto manufacturers,” Horowitz said.