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A Fight Over the Right to Repair Cars Takes a Wild Turn

The federal government’s stance in Massachusetts appears to conflict with its general views on the right to repair. In 2021, President Joe Biden ordered the Federal Trade Commission to create new rules making it harder for manufacturers to limit who can fix the devices they create.

Amid competing letters, statements, and legal paperwork there’s a fundamental question, one that Massachusetts tried to find the answer to: Who owns the resources of data created by today’s increasingly software- and computer-chip-enabled vehicles?

For decades, those advocating for the right to repair—that is, the idea that once you buy a product, you get to decide how to fix it—held up the auto industry as one that was doing it right. Car repair has long been the domain of the at-home tinkerer. As a result, independent auto repair shops and aftermarket parts manufacturers have made billions of dollars tuning and fixing vehicles.

In 2012, Massachusetts voters became the first to bring the concept into the modern age by requiring automakers to add an onboard port that allowed anyone with a cheap tool to access a car’s data. The law led to a nationwide agreement, where automakers guaranteed independent repairers and owners would have access to the tools and software given to their own franchised dealerships.

But since then, the auto business has shifted online, and almost every new car these days comes with a telematics system that collects data on its operation—including how fast it’s moving, where it’s going, how hard its driver is braking, and whether everything in the car is working correctly. This data can be transmitted wirelessly, and some automakers no longer build the onboard port into their vehicles, arguing they don’t need it anymore.

Owners and repair shops worry that the auto industry will use such advances to cut off access to the information needed to diagnose and repair vehicles, instead directing repair business to their own franchise dealerships. In Massachusetts, 75 percent of voters decided that the new technology, and the potential loopholes it created, called for a new law and passed the ballot measure approving the updated right to repair.

“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,” says Nathan Proctor, who heads up the Right to Repair campaign at the US Public Interest Research Group , an advocacy organization. “Automakers should not be able to tether you to their services.” He called the ongoing fight in Massachusetts “very frustrating.”

But the auto industry—and now, the US Department of Transportation—has said it believes giving wider access to car data is actually dangerous. In the lawsuit filed by the Alliance for Automotive Innovation in 2020, the industry argued that the Massachusetts law required them to create an open data platform too quickly, creating security risks.

Josh Siegel, an assistant professor of engineering at Michigan State University who studies connected-car security, says the automakers might be right—to a point. The Massachusetts law gave the industry about a year to build an open data platform, likely not time to create a safe system. “Open telemetry systems that are slapped together can allow unauthorized access and control,” he says.