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Mass. Voters Say 'Yes' On Question 1, Expanding Access To Car Repair Data

Cars driving along Storrow Drive in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Cars driving along Storrow Drive in Boston. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Massachusetts voters have passed a ballot measure that will expand access to motor vehicle repair data, shrugging off dire warnings from auto manufacturers who spent tens of millions of dollars in opposition.

The measure, which appeared as Question 1 on the state ballot, will require car makers to share information they collect wirelessly about vehicles' mechanical health. Such information, known as telematics, can help anticipate problems before they arise.

At present, manufacturers sometimes use telematics to prompt drivers to schedule maintenance at dealer service centers. Some independent mechanics and auto parts retailers have cried foul, saying dealerships have an unfair advantage over local repair shops and car owners who are handy under the hood.

With the passage of Question 1, auto makers must make mechanical data available to drivers through a mobile app and, with drivers' consent, to independent shops through a new database. The change takes effect in the 2022 model year.

Proponents of Question 1 billed it as an update to the "right to repair" ballot measure that passed overwhelmingly eight years ago. That 2012 vote ensures all mechanics, not just those at dealer service centers, can assess problems by plugging into vehicles' computer systems through onboard diagnostic ports.

The Massachusetts Right to Repair Committee — which raised more than $24 million, largely from auto parts companies and mechanics — argued that expanding access to wireless diagnostics is a logical next step.

But car makers contended that such an expansion is a cybersecurity risk. They helped fund a group called the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, which raised more than $26 million and aired ominous TV ads claiming criminals could exploit the provisions of Question 1 to harm drivers.

"Domestic violence advocates say a sexual predator could use the data to stalk their victims," a female narrator said in one ad.

As WBUR reported in September, the claim was misleading; the "advocates" referenced in the ad spoke out not against Question 1 in Massachusetts but against a California bill in 2014. That bill, which did not pass, would have increased access to a wide range of vehicle data, including location information.

The newly passed measure in Massachusetts refers specifically to "mechanical data related to vehicle maintenance and repair."

Other fact checkers chided Question 1 opponents for sowing fear, and voters appear to have mostly rejected the notion that the measure is dangerous.

Still, safety concerns are not entirely unfounded.

"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," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wrote in a letter to lawmakers in July.

Citing that guidance, the Boston Globe editorial board called Question 1 "far from perfect." Though it endorsed the measure, the Globe said "the Legislature must follow up to better regulate telematics and ensure that all connections to vehicles are as safe and secure as possible."

The question now is what lawmakers will do next.

Related:

Callum Borchers Twitter Reporter
Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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