Right to repair is a concept that says consumers have the right to repair their own automobiles. It also means they have the right to bring their cars to independent mechanics, not an authorized dealer, for repairs that are beyond the competence of the typical shade tree mechanic. Much of the impetus for right to repair laws is a sense among the motoring public that dealers tend to charge outrageous amounts of money for repairs and parts, which is why many refer to them as “stealerships.”
The Joy Of Fixing Stuff
As someone who owned a small fleet of MGs over a period of 40 years, I am familiar with the emotional bond created between a car and its owner during those golden moments when a pair of rebuilt SU carburetors gets bolted to the cylinder head and the car actually starts! Oh, the joy that courses through the veins when that happens is something to be savored!
It’s a thrill to know that if your electric fuel pump stops working whilst out for a Sunday drive, you can coax it back to life with a well placed whack from a 3/4 inch box end wrench (known as a spanner among British motorists) that you keep under the driver’s seat for just such purposes! But I digress.
Before you can fix stuff, though, you have to know how. Most of us who used to repair our cars ourselves had a library of repair manuals from Haynes, Chilton, and others that showed us exactly how to fit a new throw-out bearing or replace a water pump. As I recall, my MGB repair manual had grease stains on almost every page. The pages in my Miata repair manual were still clean after 20 years. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, one which probably explains why the once proud MG car company now has a Chinese owner.
Right To Repair In Massachusetts
In 2013, at the behest of independent repair shops, Massachusetts passed one of the first right to repair laws in the US. Since then, cars have become more like computers, a trend started by Tesla but now a fact of life in the world of automobiles. Changes to software now come over the air via the internet and involve far more than changes to what drivers see on their touchscreens. Do you wonder why the computer chip shortage is such a big deal? It’s because most of the basic control mechanisms in modern cars — steering, braking, accelerating — are controlled by electronics.
That creates two problems. One, if the owner is not a highly trained computer engineer, mucking about with the software can endanger other motorists. Let’s say, for example, after trying to sharpen the steering inputs on that spiffy new Belchfire 5000, the car begins turning left instead of right. That’s a problem. Same thing with brakes. Do we really want that 18-wheeler behind us using software cobbled together by the driver or some unqualified mechanic?
Two, there is the problem with hackers. If your car’s computer can be accessed over the air by the manufacturer, what’s to keep Vladimir Putin’s gang of black hat hackers from taking control of cars and making them accelerate when the brake pedal is pressed? That is obviously hyperbole, but it’s there to make a point. Today’s rolling computers on wheels need security systems in place that block malicious interference by bad people.
In 2020, the overwhelming majority (75%) of voters in Massachusetts approved an amendment to the state’s right to repair law that required all model year 2022 or newer cars sold in the state that have connected car or telematics services to have a standardized open data platform. According to the National Law Review, the open data platform would allow car owners to access their telematics system data through a mobile app and give their consent for independent repair facilities to access that data and send commands to the system for repair, maintenance, and diagnostic testing.
Automakers sued to stop the law from taking effect, claiming they needed more time to make the new platforms available. A ruling from the trial judge, Douglas Woodlock, is expected shortly, but in preliminary proceedings, the judge has been exasperated by some of the shenanigans undertaken by the manufacturers, particularly when it was revealed that open platforms are included in some MY 2022 vehicles despite protestations that the industry needed more time to develop them. “We [judges love to use the ‘royal we’] will ask whether we are dealing with concerted ignorance, willful blindness or simply ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’”
NHTSA Weighs In
As much as “right to repair” strikes an emotional chord with many drivers, and as much as manufacturers and dealers want to protect the revenue stream that comes from doing repairs and selling parts, NHTSA is concerned only with the safety of the motoring public. In a letter to state officials filed with the court, it says,
“For years, NHTSA has worked to encourage industry to adopt improved cybersecurity practices, recognizing that cybersecurity risks are real, and that protection of safety-critical vehicle systems from malicious hacking attempts is vital to the safety of the motoring public. Telematics systems are an area of great concern to the agency, because such systems could allow actors to receive and/or send information to vehicles outside of the vehicle itself, and potentially interface with multiple vehicles at a time, and to do so without gaining physical access to the vehicle.”
Lest you think my concerns about black hat hackers, as stated above, were over the top, NHTSA shares many of those same concerns.
“Managing vehicles’ lifetime cybersecurity risks is an extremely challenging undertaking: malicious actors, some of which are sponsored by hostile foreign governments, have the motivations, resources, and tools available to compromise access to safety-critical systems. A cyberattack on one or more motor vehicles has enormous potential safety consequences—a 4,000 to 80,000 lbs. vehicle operating at highway speeds can pose an incredible amount of danger to its surroundings if manipulated.
“This is why NHTSA continues to devote significant resources to the development and refinement of best practices and works with industry to identify techniques to harden vehicle systems. Two of the most important techniques — logical and physical isolation of vehicle control systems from external connections, and controlling access to firmware that executes vehicle functions — may be rendered impossible by the provisions of this ballot initiative.
“The ballot initiative requires vehicle manufacturers to redesign their vehicles in a manner that necessarily introduces cybersecurity risks, and to do so in a timeframe that makes design, proof, and implementation of any meaningful countermeasure effectively impossible.”
All of this came to the fore this week after a few Massachusetts drivers noticed some of the features they thought they were getting with their MY 2022 Subarus and Kias had been disabled. According to WBUR News, the in-car wireless technology that connects drivers to music, navigation, roadside assistance, and crash-avoiding sensors is no longer active.
The companies insist that complying with the law in Massachusetts puts them at risk of violating federal safety standards. In an email, Dominick Infante, a spokesperson for Subaru, told WBUR the “impossibility of complying” with the law in Massachusetts “is a disservice to both our retailers and our customers. The data platform that the new law requires to provide the data does not exist and will not exist any time soon.”
WBUR notes that part of the fight is about who gets to alert drivers when their car senses that repairs are needed. The current system favors dealerships. Many independent repair shops and mechanics fear they will be put out of business if they can’t get get easy access to the software upgrades and mechanical data needed to make basic repairs. You may already be familiar with the recent story about a Tesla owner who was told it would cost $16,000 to fix a problem with his car that could have been resolved for $700.
“If we don’t have access to repair information, diagnostic information, you’re putting an entire workforce out of business,” said Bob Lane, owner of Direct Tire & Auto Service in Watertown. “If the only person who can fix a car, because of a data standpoint, is the dealership, the consumer has lost the choice.”
The right-to-repair movement now has a powerful ally in US President Joe Biden, who signed an executive order last year promoting competition in the repair business. Apple and Microsoft have already begun making it easier for consumers to fix their own phones and laptops. “Denying the right to repair raises prices for consumers,” Biden said in January. “It means independent repair shops can’t compete for your business.”
Don’t think for a minute that much of this fight isn’t about money. Service and parts are highly profitable for car dealers. As the EV revolution ramps up, dealers see income from those departments declining, which is a threat to their future viability. We might sympathize with the independent garage. It’s a classic David versus Goliath kind of battle in which we tend to root for the underdog. Yet the prospect of vehicles running amok on public roads has to be a concern.
The bottom line is, when we purchase a vehicle today, we may get the physical chassis, but the software belongs to the manufacturer. In a world dominated by electronics, the manufacturer will know if you slip an unauthorized set of brake pads into your ride or replace the struts with aftermarket units. Does the manufacturer retain the right to disable your vehicle if you attempt such blasphemy? We will find out soon enough.