fb-pixel Skip to main content

Will carmakers defeat Question 1 in court?

The automobile right-to-repair law approved by Massachusetts voters is on hold for now.
The automobile right-to-repair law approved by Massachusetts voters is on hold for now.Dan Hff

What ever happened to Question 1?

On Election Day, Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved this “right-to-repair” ballot initiative. It requires the world’s automakers to give Massachusetts consumers access to a car’s “telematic” data — diagnostic information via wireless connection. The new law, intended to let consumers have their cars repaired at their own mechanics, was supposed to take effect with the coming of the 2022 model year.

But as carmakers crank up production of their 2022 models, the right-to-repair law is in limbo.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents the top US and foreign automakers, filed suit in federal court to block the law, arguing that it conflicts with federal laws governing automotive safety.

Advertisement



Carmakers spent millions to oppose Question 1, arguing that allowing third parties to access telematic data would make it easier for cybercriminals to remotely hack automobile systems and seize drivers’ sensitive personal information.

But Bryan Reimer, a research scientist in transportation and logistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said it’s the conflict with federal law that gives carmakers a good chance of victory.

“This law, I think, should be tossed out,” said Reimer, a vocal opponent of Question 1. “I am sympathetic to both sides here, but it’s a federal issue.” If Massachusetts can pass its own right-to-repair law, Reimer said, automakers could be forced to comply with different data-sharing standards in each of the 50 states.

Besides, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warned last June that provisions of the new law are in “direct conflict with existing Federal guidance,” according to a letter sent to the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. The court could decide that federal regulations take precedence.

The argument doesn’t impress Tommy Hickey, director of the Right To Repair Committee, which led the campaign for the law. Hickey points out that Massachusetts enacted a right-to-repair law in 2012 that required carmakers to provide a way for repair shops to talk to a car’s computers by plugging into a car’s data port. This state law wasn’t struck down; in fact, carmakers reached a deal with the other 49 states to provide the same access nationwide.

Advertisement



“I think we still feel good that this can be done at the state level,” Hickey said.

But the previous right-to-repair law was never addressed in federal court, because the carmakers gave in. This time, they’re fighting back, and judges will decide the winner.

A spokeswoman for Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said the state has agreed to hold off on enforcing the law at least until Aug. 1. After that, automakers found to be out of compliance could face severe civil penalties. For instance, if an independent mechanic could not repair a car because he could not access the car’s telematic system, the mechanic could sue the carmaker for $10,000 or more.

But it’s an open question whether the law can be implemented. Since cars are designed years in advance, the software for every 2022 car was finished long ago. The automakers have complained that they cannot comply with the 2022 deadline.

Hickey doesn’t buy it. He believes that carmakers are already at work on ways to provide better access to telematic data. “We expect that they’ve been developing this technology,” he said, “and we expect that they’ll comply with the law.”

Advertisement



Not everyone is so confident. Democratic State Representative Michael Finn of West Springfield has filed legislation that would push back the effective date of the law to the 2025 model year, to give carmakers an extra three years to comply.

Whatever happens in Massachusetts, there’s a growing national consensus that manufacturers of cars and other consumer products should make them easier to repair. At least 13 other states are considering some type of right-to-repair law. And last week, a Federal Trade Commission report called for federal regulatory action to mandate access to the software needed to repair all sorts of products, from home appliances to automobiles.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.