NHTSA Tells Auto Industry Not to Comply With Massachusetts Data Laws

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has advised automakers not to comply with a Massachusetts vehicle telematics rule designed to ensure customers have control over what happens with their private data. It’s the regulators' assertion that companies are obligated to enforce federal standards while suggesting that the state law poses safety concerns.

Interestingly, that’s the exact same claim the automotive lobby was making when the Massachusetts law was up first for debate and leaves one wondering who exactly the NHTSA is advocating for.

It’s no secret that various industries attempting to hoard customer data and redefine what constitutes ownership have created a groundswell of consumer resentment. The situation has even led to the right-to-repair movement advocating for purchasers of devices and equipment (including automobiles) to freely modify and repair products — occasionally resulting in localized legislation protecting consumer rights.

In the case of Massachusetts, the 2020 measure sought to allow independent repair shops to access diagnostic data modern vehicles automatically send directly to dealerships and manufacturers. It passed, approved by nearly 75 percent of voters, and requires manufacturers operating within the state to equip modern cars with a standardized open access data platform that allows third parties to access telematics data.

Automakers see the information as invaluable, offering a wealth of data points to help them determine how to build future products, schedule servicing routines, and which parts to order. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group representing just about every automaker, even sued to block the Massachusetts law and has likewise asked a federal judge to seek a temporary restraining order barring enforcement of the Data Access Law.

But the opposition has argued that it’s destroying small businesses by making it difficult for consumers to seek repairs outside of certified service centers owned by the relevant dealerships. Arguments have likewise been made that the information should be owned by the customer and that they should be the ones to determine where it goes.

On Wednesday, Reuters reported that the NHTSA had stepped in to tell automakers not to comply with the Massachusetts law. The agency has said that the "NHTSA expects vehicle manufacturers to fully comply with their Federal safety obligations.”

From Reuters:

The NHTSA said a malicious actor "could utilize such open access to remotely command vehicles to operate dangerously, including attacking multiple vehicles concurrently." Massachusetts is seeking to enforce a 2020 ballot initiative that was overwhelmingly approved by voters.
NHTSA added that "open access to vehicle manufacturers’ telematics offerings with the ability to remotely send commands
allows for manipulation of systems on a vehicle, including safety-critical functions such as steering, acceleration, or braking."

However, the above is really more of a problem with vehicular connectivity in general than anything else. If modern vehicles lacked things like over-the-air (OTA) updates or were less reliant on software, this wouldn’t be an issue. The NHTSA seems to be doing little more than protecting the massive companies that have the most to gain by furthering the connectivity agenda.

While it’s rare to see businesses admit to it, automakers understandably want to keep lucrative data for themselves. But they’ve also claimed that opening the door to third parties would require them to remove some of the safety barriers that could make users more vulnerable. That’s debatable when it could be similarly argued they’re already being taken advantage of by the industry. Though it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that malicious actors could take advantage of a more open system.

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell said "consumers and independent repair shops deserve to know whether they will receive access to vehicle repair data in the manner provided by the law."

Your author is inclined to agree and would prefer customers have the final say on what happens with their data. The value of the information being amassed by the industry cannot be understated and it has certainly helped automakers evolve.

Still, there needs to be a discussion about who has the right to control that data and what exactly constitutes ownership. Having purchased a product seems as though it should be the threshold. But the lines are getting blurry, with corporate actors and the federal government seemingly at odds with the rights of ordinary people.

[Image: CAT SCAPE/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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4 of 17 comments
  • EBFlex EBFlex on Jun 15, 2023

    This administration is astoundingly evil.

    • See 1 previous
    • 28-Cars-Later 28-Cars-Later on Jun 20, 2023

      This is the NHSTA, not the FTC

      "The opposing side flooded the airwaves with commercials making the whole “they’ll be able to remotely control your vehicle!”"

      This is already fact, ask Michael Hastings.

  • William Piper William Piper on Jun 16, 2023

    MA here….the ballot initiative passed here by a decent margin supporting data privacy. The opposing side flooded the airwaves with commercials making the whole “they’ll be able to remotely control your vehicle!” BS. Many of the people featured on those ads were your typical DC “lifers”. Seems they finally got their way using this administration to overturn the people’s vote…..

  • The Oracle Looks like a nice reincarnation.
  • TheEndlessEnigma In '98 a guy I worked with came into work pissed, so pissed he was beside himself, so pissed he was beside himself and they were both pissed. He had bought a Seville the year before for his wife, a very buxom empty headed drink of water that was roughly 20 years his junior (she *LIKED* older men and he wasn't about to complain). He had gotten a call the afternoon before, she was broken down in the less than 1 year old Seville on the side of the NY Turnpike at the Galleria Mall in Cheektowaga. The car quite on her in traffic and it wouldn't start. They got it towed to a nearby Caddy dealer and they started checking out the problem immediately. As he told it, the car already had a little over 20k miles on it so the service manager was pretty concerned about a warranty engine failure, "These Northstar engines are bulletproof!". After about an hour at the shop the service manager comes to talk with them, "Uh, ma'am, when was the last time you had the oil changed"? "Oil change, don't they come with oil when you buy these cars?". Seems the engine seized up, right around 1 qt of oil, with a tar like consistency and full of sparkles, was found in the oil pan. The late '90s, a NorthStar engine, one year and 20k miles......never saw an oil change. Powertrain warranty claim? Refused. Engine replacement? You bet, $9900 in 1998 dollars.
  • VoGhost Quality review. Thanks!
  • VoGhost Love this collective clutching of pearls over a vehicle name not a single commenter will ever see, drive or buy.
  • 28-Cars-Later "Here's why" edition_cnn_com/2018/06/13/health/falling-iq-scores-study-intl/index.html