Feds say Mass. 'Right to Repair' law can go ahead with changes

The Massachusetts law that would give car owners and independent repair shops greater access to a car's diagnostic data can go into effect after federal regulators gave the greenlight.

On Wednesday the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that Massachusetts' Right to Repair law can be implemented with some changes, a decision that comes months after it told car makers not to comply with it.

In June, the federal agency said the law would violate cybersecurity protections in the Federal Vehicle Safety Act — the latest challenge in a series of legal hurdles that prevented the law from going into effect after 75% of voters approved it in 2020.

The federal agency's position changed, following a series of letter exchanges with the office of Attorney General Andrea Campbell, in which the two regulatory bodies agreed to some changes.

In a letter to Attorney General Andrea Campbell's office, federal regulators said that so long as manufacturers grant car owners and independent repair shops telematic data via Bluetooth or some similar wireless access "from within close physical distance to the vehicle," the law would meet federal requirements.

"Limiting the geographical range of access would significantly reduce the risk that malicious actors could exploit vulnerabilities at scale to access multiple vehicles, including, importantly, when vehicles are driven on a roadway," NHTSA Assistant Chief Counsel for Litigation and Enforcement Kerry Kolodziej said in the letter.

But advocates behind the effort to pass the Right to Repair law in Massachusetts view the change as unnecessarily restrictive.

Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition spokesperson Tommy Hickey said the agency's conclusion that the law doesn't violate federal law is an "important first step." However, he said, Bluetooth and close-range wireless access places a guardrail around owners and independent repair shops that doesn't apply to car dealerships. This, he says, doesn't guarantee a level playing field.

"They limited what kind of access the car owner and independent repair shops could have at their first flush," he said. "We feel that the best way is the same way that the car manufacturers are giving it to their car dealerships."

It wasn't immediately clear when manufacturers would need to begin complying with the 2020 law, which affects all car models 2022 and newer.

U.S. District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock is still weighing a lawsuit manufacturers filed. An agency legal counsel noted in his letter that both federal and state regulators agree manufacturers may need more time to "securely develop, test, and implement" the "open access platform" technology, which is not immediately available.

The agency also stressed that  manufacturers should not disable telematic functions in an attempt to comply with the Massachusetts law, warning that such a step would "disserve vehicle owner safety without advancing the right to repair."

With reporting from State House News Service's Chris Lisinki and WBUR's Dave Faneuf, written by WBUR's Vanessa Ochavillo.



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