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Your Car Talks To The Manufacturer. Advocates Want It To Talk To You, Too

Tommy Hickey, director of the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition, walks the first round of paperwork for his group's proposed ballot question into the attorney general's office on Tuesday. He's followed by Dorchester auto repair shop owner Alan Saks. (Sam Doran/State House News Service)
Tommy Hickey, director of the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition, walks the first round of paperwork for his group's proposed ballot question into the attorney general's office on Tuesday. He's followed by Dorchester auto repair shop owner Alan Saks. (Sam Doran/State House News Service)

If your car is less than a decade old, chances are it’s equipped with “telematics”— basically, computers that let the manufacturer wirelessly track a car’s performance and send notifications when something needs fixing. In some cases, these notifications may even recommend a nearby dealership to make those repairs.

“Toyota, Honda, BMW, Audi … they’re all talking to the car,” said Barry Steinberg, who runs several auto shops in Massachusetts under the name Direct Tire & Auto Service. Steinberg worries that when manufacturers can nudge drivers toward dealer-based repair shops, it puts independent shops like his at a disadvantage.

“If Big Brother comes on in your car and says, ‘Go to your Honda dealer,’ 90% of people are going to listen to them,” Steinberg said.

Steinberg is a member of the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition (MRRC), which is behind a proposal that would force automakers to give car owners access to their real-time car data through a mobile app. On Tuesday, the group filed a petition with the Massachusetts attorney general’s office to get the issue before voters on the November 2020 ballot.

The goal is to give consumers more information, so they can make informed decisions about when and where to get repairs, said MRRC Director Tommy Hickey.

The language of the proposed ballot measure includes a provision that, starting with the model year 2022, manufacturers that sell cars in Massachusetts must equip them with a “standardized and open access platform” that is accessible to the owner, car dealerships and independent repair shops.

What kind of data does the proposal aim to make available?

“All the information necessary to diagnose, maintain and repair the vehicle,” said Hickey.

The state’s current “right to repair” law requires automakers to give both dealers and independent shops easy access to computer codes needed to diagnose and repair certain car problems. However, Hickey said the law leaves a “loophole” when it comes to the real-time data collected by a car’s telematics.

“If your brakes are about to go out or your catalytic converter is about to breakdown, car manufacturers are getting the information directly from the vehicle," he said. "And it’s bypassing consumers and independent repair shops.”

The proposal has opponents, including automakers and franchise auto dealers.

“The [current] law has been working fine,” said Robert O'Koniewski, executive vice president of the Massachusetts State Auto Dealers Association, referring to the current "right to repair" law, which was approved by 86% of voters in a November 2012 ballot measure and implemented by a 2013 law.

Independent shops have access to all the information needed when a car is brought into their shop, and “nothing has changed the consumers’ ability to go to whomever they want to get that car repaired,” he said.

A set of bills in the state Legislature, also aimed at expanding the current “right to repair” law, have yet to get a public hearing. Before the bill gets to a ballot measure, O'Koniewski said he would like to see lawmakers hold a public hearing where various stakeholders can weigh in.

“Repair shops have access to all they data they need to service your vehicle today, and they will continue to in the future,” said Conor Yunits, a spokesman for the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data. According to Yunits, the newly formed group is backed in part by The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an association of 12 of the largest car manufacturers.

The "right to repair" law is working as intended, said Yunits, adding that proponents of the ballot measure are making a “data grab,” and that opening up telematics data to consumers and third parties raises potential privacy issues.

“They’re looking for a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” Yunits said.

Adrian Ma Twitter Reporter
Adrian Ma is a reporter for WBUR's Bostonomix team.

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