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With Question 1, voters must navigate a high-stakes, complex industry battle, report says

‘No one really knows the full scope and exact makeup of the data we’re talking about,'

Question 1 on the November Ballot seeks to expand the state's Right to Repair law. Above, a "yes" ad (on top) and a "no" ad.
Question 1 on the November Ballot seeks to expand the state's Right to Repair law. Above, a "yes" ad (on top) and a "no" ad.

A ballot question that would expand the state’s so-called Right to Repair law is unlikely to produce immediate, widescale benefits for independent mechanics, nor does it appear to expose sensitive personal data such as a car’s GPS location to greater risk of unauthorized disclosure, according to a third-party analysis of the highly complicated initiative.

The report released Wednesday by the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University does not take a position on Question 1, which would require automakers to explicitly provide independent repair shops with access to the computerized diagnostic data transmitted wirelessly from a car.

But it suggests that the scale of cybersecurity threats carmakers have warned of should the question pass — and the monopolistic advantage mechanics say car dealers would gain if it doesn’t — have both been overblown by costly advertising campaigns.

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It’s also laid bare a high-stakes industry battle, with voters plunked in the middle. How they choose could potentially have national ramifications and, regardless of the outcome on Nov. 3, the debate has underscored an issue ripe for legislative action, the report states.

“You can think of this year’s right-to-repair ballot question as the latest move in the cat-and-mouse game, an effort by independent mechanics and their allies to close the information gap and ensure that owners have an array of repair options,” according to the nine-page report released Wednesday. “How much this will matter on the ground is unclear.”

The ballot question is a sequel to a 2012 initiative that voters approved, allowing independent repair shops to plug into a car and access the same digital codes that car dealers and their mechanics do to help diagnose problems.

This time, the initiative would require car manufacturers to create a platform for sharing wireless data known as telematics, and calls for the development of apps that would make it possible for car owners to both see their own data and share them with an independent mechanic.

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Supporters, including auto parts dealers and mechanics, argue the change is needed to level the playing field with car dealerships, who could begin cornering the repair market as more mechanical data is transmitted wirelessly. Automakers warn that opening access to that data will create dire risks, including making it easier for predators to “stalk their victims.”

Combined, the competing committees in the debate have so far reported spending $32.2 million in pushing those narratives, including through dueling, and exaggerated, advertising campaigns.

The report by the Center for State Policy Analysis says both arguments should come with a lot of caveats, and the report’s careful navigation through the issues underlines the gray area where voters are being asked to tread.

Yes, giving mechanics more access to repair-relevant data encourages competition, but the ballot question is “not likely to produce large, near-term benefits” for them because telematics systems are relatively new and don’t yet contain large amounts of repair-relevant data, according to the Tufts report.

The ballot question’s language limiting any shared data to those “related to the diagnosis, repair, or maintenance” would benefit from sharper language, the reports states, but as written, it “seems” to narrow the scope to minimize the risk of other, more sensitive data, being shared, such as your car’s location history, your preferred gas stations, or your garage door codes.

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(Opponents have argued that the “related to” clause could open a door location or other personal data could help in diagnosing a car’s problems.)

Telematics data is also highly proprietary — meaning only automakers have a clear picture of what’s being collected — and that in turn makes it difficult to narrowly define what is made available to car owners and mechanics.

“No one really knows the full scope and exact makeup of the data we’re talking about,” the report states.

That said, the ballot question language carries its own risks and uncertainties. It sets a deadline of requiring automakers to design and implement a system for sharing the data beginning with model year 2022 cars — an “extremely tight” time frame, according to the report.

It does not specify who will build the apps or how they should operate. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has also said it is “effectively impossible” for automakers to design, test, and implement a secure approach by then.

It’s one of many points the Legislature should tackle, should the question pass, according to the report. Among the suggestions: lawmakers specify what type of data can be accessed; develop a code of conduct of how data is stored, used, and shared; and create an independent or government group to both set a “workable” timetable for implementation and then track it.

“This particular ballot question contains a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty that would benefit from some clarification and oversight,” said Evan Horowitz, the executive director of the nonpartisan center and the report’s author.

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Horowitz, who is also a former Globe reporter, noted the Legislature later tweaked the 2012 Right to Repair question that passed, creating some precedent. But he said given the complexities of the issue, it would “behoove” legislators to tackle telematics even if the question fails, including requiring dealers and automakers to inform buyers about the extent of data collected through their cars.

“Part of the irony of the opposition to this is, it has really highlighted the risks that are already present,” he said. “Automakers are already getting that data and there is no regulatory structure in place.”


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.