Eight years ago, Massachusetts voters passed a ballot measure that required car manufacturers to share diagnostics data with independent auto-repair shops. The rationale was that if car manufacturers were the only ones with access to a given car’s data, consumers would be left with no choice but to go to dealer shops for repairs. That’s what “Right to Repair” laws aim to do: level the playing field in order to ensure fair competition.
Now, Question 1 on the November ballot — another “Right to Repair” initiative — seeks to expand the previous law to account for new wireless technology. While the advocates for and against the ballot measure have flooded Massachusetts voters with misinformation and exaggerated claims through multi-million dollar ad campaigns, the right path forward for Massachusetts is to vote yes.
The reason the new Right to Repair measure should pass is simple: It is inherently unfair for car manufacturers to have sole access to a vehicle’s mechanical data, because it gives their dealerships an advantage over independent auto-repair shops. That ultimately hurts consumers, because with limited options come higher prices. Giving car owners and lessees the ability to choose who has access to their vehicle data allows them to repair their cars wherever they please, whether that be at the car dealership, the closest Jiffy Lube, or their local independent auto-repair shop.
But the ballot measure, as it is, is far from perfect. The fact that this question was put to voters as opposed to lawmakers is a failure on the part of the Legislature. While citizens have a right to create laws through an initiative if their representatives fail to act, issues like this one are far too complex to deal with on a ballot, as evidenced by all the confusion sowed by special interest groups — from car manufacturers like General Motors to aftermarket chains like Autozone — through their massive advertising campaigns.
There are valid cybersecurity concerns about this initiative — though not the ones that the “No” campaign has expressed in their fear-mongering ads about stalking and sexual predators. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has, for example, publicly taken issue with Question 1. In a letter addressed to the co-chairmen of the Massachusetts Legislature’s consumer protection committee, the federal agency said that the ballot measure might open up a whole host of cybersecurity risks, including the possibility of hackers — or “malicious actors” — exploiting the broader wireless access to vehicle systems and causing crashes by seizing control of a vehicle’s braking and acceleration.
The concern that NHTSA raises stems from the use of telematics, the wireless technology at the heart of this ballot measure. It establishes a two-way connection between the car and the manufacturer, and potentially allows someone to remotely control certain aspects of the vehicle. The ballot measure would create a mobile-based application that would make that data more accessible — which opponents to Question 1 say will make it more vulnerable to hacking. But the underlying problem already exists even if only automakers have access. Obscurity, it is often said, is not security, and leaving this technology solely in the hands of automakers by voting no would not eradicate the cybersecurity risks.
That’s why, if the ballot measure is passed, the Legislature must follow up to better regulate telematics and ensure that all connections to vehicles are as safe and secure as possible. Lawmakers should be actively involved in overseeing the creation of the mobile app that would open up this data to consumers and independent contractors, and it is on the Legislature to protect consumers and come up with safe solutions to unfair competition. That could be through a secure wireless app, as the ballot measure calls for, or through a compromise that requires all cars, including electric vehicles, to keep their OBD ports — which mechanics can currently plug into to retrieve diagnostics data — and ensure that independent auto shops have access to all the same data through those ports that dealerships have.
Ultimately, this issue is far bigger than Massachusetts, and the future of telematics will impact consumers around the world. For that reason, whatever the outcome in Massachusetts this November, Congress should pass a federal Right to Repair law, and address all concerns involved, from data privacy to cybersecurity. But for now, for the sake of fairer competition, people should vote yes on Question 1 — and proceed to demand that their elected representatives do their jobs to keep everyone safe.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.