By Spencer Kosior
Automotive manufacturers have long controlled data needed for repairs, but a proposed update to a landmark Massachusetts law may finally give mechanics, and car owners, access to this digital gold and open more repair options for consumers.
Right now, auto mechanics in Massachusetts are able to access most technical information for car repairs thanks to the 2013 Motor Vehicle Right to Repair Act. It took nearly 10 years of lobbying from repair organizations and a state primary ballot question to pass it.
But the law as it was written six years ago is not enough for independent repair shops today.
Normally, accessing information needed for a fix is as simple as plugging a diagnostic tool into the dataport of the vehicle or accessing a part database to learn more about the problem.
“You need diagnostic information to complete every task,” says David Protano, Chair of Automotive Technology at Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology, “From determining what grade oil to use when performing an oil change to reprogramming an ECU.”
An ECU is an engine control unit. It is a programmable electronic controller used to achieve optimal engine performance in every modern vehicle.
Cars, trucks and other motor vehicles are more electronics than mechanical components–an exponential evolution from automobiles from decades ago.
As early as the 1990s, automotive manufacturers from Ford to Toyota have installed electronics in its vehicles to control various systems and collect driving data.
Getting access to this data is often as simple as buying an interface device loaded with software that can communicate with a vehicle’s electronics. The 2013 Massachusetts law made it possible for repair shops that were not affiliated with a dealership to access these tools and information necessary to do their jobs.
“It put independent shops on somewhat of a level playing field with dealerships…,” says Protano.
For years, auto manufacturers were not making technical information readily available to independent repair shops—only giving access to dealerships. This greatly impacted these small businesses’ ability to compete with dealership repair shops. Independent mechanics could not research or understand the components they needed to know about in order to do their jobs.
Today in 2019, it is once again getting difficult for independent shops to look at every byte of data except for automotive manufacturers.
Most modern cars now come packed with components that wirelessly transmit information. This field of wireless data transmission is called telematics. It makes tools like GPS navigation, satellite radio, and autopilot possible. And now this technology also tells you when it is time to head to the dealer for a tune up.
A driver cannot go to an independent repair shop because these places often do not have the modern tools or know-how to complete the service.
Organizations like the Coalition for Safe & Secure Data and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers say the memorandum of understanding reached from 2013 Right to Repair law ensures mechanics can get access to the information they need.
While this business agreement exists, currently there is no state or federal law explicitly requiring auto manufacturers give access to the type of diagnostic data independent shops need. Only licensed dealerships have unfettered access to this information for the vehicles they sell. The wording of the current law makes it so that auto manufacturers only need to provide data for vehicles whose model years are between 2002 and 2014.
If the vehicle is newer than this, it limits a driver’s choice of where they can go to get their car serviced and eliminates any possibility of a home mechanic from completing a repair themselves.
“Technology shouldn’t restrict or consume consumer’s choice on where they get their car fixed. And shouldn’t affect an independent repair shop’s ability to fix stuff.”
Since cars, trucks and SUVs are getting more electronic gadgets and monitors installed in them with each new generation, accessing and understanding this data is vital for all mechanics—those working for dealerships and independent repair shops alike.
Academics like Protano agree that transparency and accessibility is necessary for the automotive repair industry as a whole. By making information and data available to all, it elevates the entire industry as a whole. It makes repair technicians more versatile–streamlining the repair process.
“It helps the industry and doesn’t empower one entity,” he says.
Members of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group of 12 major automakers from around the world, say a law requiring them to hand over access to every bit of a vehicle’s driving data is a consumer privacy and cybersecurity issue.
Repair advocates like Thomas Hickey argue that requiring data transparency is more important.
“Technology shouldn’t restrict or consume consumer’s choice on where they get their car fixed. And shouldn’t affect an independent repair shop’s ability to fix stuff,” says Hickey.
Conor Yunits, a spokesperson and lobbyist for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers as well as the Coalition for Safe & Secure Data, says data privacy is the real issue with current Right to Repair bills. Current and proposed policy do not concretely address how access to this data will be protected and regulated nor how long third-parties will be able to store it.
Proposed legislation includes several additions to the current law. It would add a definition of telematics systems, lay out how they can be accessed and require all automotive vehicles beginning with model year 2022 have standardized methods for accessing diagnostic data.
It would give Massachusetts motorists, and others nationwide, more control over their vehicle’s data. If this freedom and transparency is granted, however, there runs the risk of data breaches and possible mal-use from third-parties unless proper protections are put into place.