A federal judge is set to rule as soon as next week on the fate of the Massachusetts “right to repair” law enacted by referendum last November, which is intended to give car owners access to their vehicles’ digital data.
But the ruling may be delayed as Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey seeks to introduce new evidence showing that automaker Subaru is deactivating the wireless data systems of its new cars sold in Massachusetts, as a way to comply with the new law.
Under the law, automakers must give Massachusetts consumers access to a car’s “telematic” data — diagnostic information via wireless connection. The new law is intended to let consumers get their cars repaired at their own mechanics, and to ensure that independent repair shops remain competitive with new-car dealerships, by giving them equal access to the data.
The law was supposed to take effect with the coming of the 2022 model year. But the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an association of the world’s top carmakers, filed a suit to overturn the new law almost as soon as voters approved it. The alliance says only the federal government, not a state, is empowered to pass such a law. In addition, carmakers said that they could not redesign the digital systems of their cars in time to comply with the law’s 2022 model-year deadline.
During the trial, which was held in June and July, Healey told US District Court Judge Douglas Woodlock that it would be sufficient for carmakers to switch off their telematics service on cars sold in Massachusetts, until they could provide the digital data to independent repair shops on an equal footing. But at the time, Healey was not aware that an automaker was planning to do exactly that.
In August, a consumer contacted Healey’s office, according to court documents filed last Friday. He had just bought a 2022 Subaru Outback from North Reading Subaru, and was told that he could not obtain the company’s StarLink telematic service, which provides stolen vehicle tracking and emergency assistance, while also monitoring the car’s vital mechanical systems. The customer was told that Subaru wasn’t providing StarLink to Massachusetts customers, in order to avoid violating the right-to-repair law.
An investigator for the attorney general’s office contacted 20 Subaru dealers in Massachusetts, the court records show. Several said it was company policy not to activate StarLink in cars sold in Massachusetts. The dealers provided a memo from Jeffrey Ruble, general manager of the Subaru Dealers of New England, stating that Subaru of America “has determined that it is no longer able to offer StarLink Safety & Security subscriptions to Massachusetts residents beginning with model year 2022.”
This means that a valuable feature of new Subarus is unavailable to consumers in Massachusetts, at least for the time being.
But according to Healey, it also means that carmakers can switch off their telematic systems in Massachusetts, without affecting service in the rest of the US. By doing this, they can buy time to upgrade their electronics to comply with the Massachusetts law, making it unnecessary to overturn the law in its entirety.
In response, the carmakers alliance said it has never denied its ability to deactivate telematics. It argues that contrary to Subaru’s claim, merely switching off the service does not bring car companies into compliance with the law. In addition, it says turning off telematics hinders carmakers’ ability to deliver safety-related software updates or to receive automatic crash notifications, thereby reducing driver safety.
Officials of the auto alliance, the Subaru Dealers of New England, and the attorney general’s office all declined further comment.