Automakers Claim They Can’t Comply With Right-to-Repair Laws

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The State of Massachusetts' Right-to-Repair law was passed in 2012, laying the foundation for the rest of the United States to begin securing consumer protections that would allow them to work on the products they own. General Motors and Stellantis are now claiming they cannot possibly adhere to the rules and have done nothing to prepare for complying with the law.

Prior to the legislation being passed, independent repair shops and do-it-yourself types working on everything from cell phones to modern automobiles had begun to notice that manufacturers were doing everything they could to cut them out of the picture, effectively eliminating small businesses while claiming modern hardware was too complex or dangerous for average people to meddle with. 

While the right-to-repair movement has existed for roughly a century, it's taken up numerous causes and often varies in size. Prior to the 1960s, people were protesting planned obsolescence and alleged that businesses with the concept worked hand-in-hand with certified repair shops (and parts) that were supplanting independent alternatives. By the 1970s, criticism had grown to include grievances that the numerous industries were intentionally restricting access to parts and using warranties to prohibit who could conduct repairs. Today, those issues are still around and have snowballed into new complaints that manufacturers are trying to gate-keep using connectivity features and proprietary computer code. 

The issue came to a head in Massachusetts after the Supreme Court favored a class action lawsuit challenging the carriers' policies against unlocking phones in 2008. Right-to-repair found themselves in local hearings pitted against corporate lobbyists for years. But when the vote was put to the public, 74.8 percent of voters backed requiring manufacturers to sell the same service materials and diagnostics equipment to consumers or to independent mechanics as they used to provide exclusively to certified dealerships. 

Industry groups threw a fit and alleged that providing access would lead to data breaches and privacy issues – which has basically been their preferred counterpoint ever since. Despite other states issuing similar legislation in successive years, new grassroots right-to-repair organizations forming, and major automobile trade organizations having signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2014, the automotive sector has continued to push back against the rules. 

In 2020, the Massachusetts Right to Repair Initiative (known as Question 1) appeared on the general election ballot as an initiated state statute that would expand the state’s right-to-repair laws by including vehicle telematics systems. These systems contain car data that is typically transmitted outside the vehicle and typically include things like maintenance routines, diagnostic reports, vehicle location, GPS, mobile internet, and just about any other information the manufacturer might deem valuable. It’s basically anything that cannot be accessed via the OBD II port, something the industry seems interested in phasing out. Under the new law, vehicles sold in Massachusetts from 2022 onward would be required to have a standardized open-access data platform so that independent repair shops could (with customer permission) access some of that information. 

According to The Boston Globe, Stellantis and General Motors recently told Boston federal court that they cannot and will not be able to comply with those rules. Kevin Tierney, vice president of global cybersecurity for GM, said that “it remains my considered judgment that it is simply impossible to comply with the Data Access Law safely.”

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI), the world’s largest consortium of car manufacturers, filed suit to halt enforcement of the law almost as soon as it passed in 2020. Automakers allege that only the federal government (not states) could pass such a law. Funnily enough, General Motors agreed to adhere to California emission standards during the last months of the Trump administration and the AAI similarly embraced those rules shortly after they were to be adopted by the Biden administration as part of a national plan. So it seems like the industry likes to pick and choose which regulations to follow when it can. 

Manufacturers are likewise arguing that Massachusetts law makes it extremely difficult to secure digital data from hackers, adding that they’ve not been given proper time to comply. Though, again, they probably could have seen the writing on the wall when legislation was passed in 2012. Meanwhile, they’ve had two years to comply with the updated rules and nobody seems to be acknowledging that there may be an issue with corporate data acquisition in general if it is so easy to steal. Of course, your author believes manufacturers already know that and simply don’t want what they believe to be their next big revenue stream ( connected vehicles and data harvesting) to be stymied by other parties getting involved and learning what’s a play. 

It could be argued that this is nothing more than a transparency issue – a stone the industry does not want to see turned over. 

In September, U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock ordered the auto alliance to show what steps they’ve taken to comply with the law, in case he decides to uphold it. Speaking on behalf of the lobbying group, GM and Stellantis executives said that until they receive further guidance from the court, there’s nothing to be done and no chance of adhering to the new rules. 

The only real exception involves their suggestion that an independent company would need to be established to provide car mechanics with access to telematic data from all carmakers. However, no such business entity exists at present and the auto executives claimed it would be illegal for manufacturers to do so themselves because it would not be independent. While true, there really shouldn’t be anything stopping individual companies from handing that data over themselves or giving consumers direct control over their own information. This whole debacle could have also been avoided if the industry wasn’t sucking up the data, to begin with, or appeared less interested in leveraging the tech to strengthen industrial monopolies. 

“We’re close to the two-year anniversary, it’s sort of a sad anniversary, and the car companies have admittedly done nothing to comply with the will of the voters,” Justin Rzepka, executive director of the CAR Coalition, a Washington-based group that represents independent car repair shops, told The Boston Globe

Considering the general unwillingness to adhere to the law and constant obfuscation about what data is being harvested, I guess automakers have indeed gotten their wish. They’re finally all becoming loathsome tech companies ferreting your data away while telling you that it’s none of your business. 

[Image: Standret/Shutterstock]

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Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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2 of 28 comments
  • Bullnuke Bullnuke on Oct 30, 2022

    Objecting to "Right to Repair" by manufacturers is another sop to the dealerships who are their actual customers. Manufacturers have been supporting dealership service departments for years - one that gripes me is having to disassemble the innards of a front fender just to replace a $15 low beam bulb that the dealer gladly will do for $90 plus tax. When owners increasingly became willing to do things that cost ridiculous amounts in parts and labor at the dealership, the manufacturers upped the ante with proprietary equipment to force 'em back to a service department's tender mercies with stale donuts and even worse coffee in the waiting room along with the bill for high-dollar parts and $140/hr labor charges.

  • Luc65689494 Luc65689494 on Oct 31, 2022

    The Commonwealth of Massachusetts

  • ToolGuy "The car is the eye in my head and I have never spared money on it, no less, it is not new and is over 30 years old."• Translation please?(Theories: written by AI; written by an engineer lol)
  • Ltcmgm78 It depends on whether or not the union is a help or a hindrance to the manufacturer and workers. A union isn't needed if the manufacturer takes care of its workers.
  • Honda1 Unions were needed back in the early days, not needed know. There are plenty of rules and regulations and government agencies that keep companies in line. It's just a money grad and nothing more. Fain is a punk!
  • 1995 SC If the necessary number of employees vote to unionize then yes, they should be unionized. That's how it works.
  • Sobhuza Trooper That Dave Thomas fella sounds like the kind of twit who is oh-so-quick to tell us how easy and fun the bus is for any and all of your personal transportation needs. The time to get to and from the bus stop is never a concern. The time waiting for the bus is never a concern. The time waiting for a connection (if there is one) is never a concern. The weather is never a concern. Whatever you might be carrying or intend to purchase is never a concern. Nope, Boo Cars! Yeah Buses! Buses rule!Needless to say, these twits don't actual take the damn bus.