By Jackson Tarkowski, Staff Writer
Photo Courtesy of Pixabay.com
There is currently a showdown brewing between automakers and consumers and it revolves around the right to repair consumer’s personal vehicles. People have often languished over increasing costs of vehicle repairs, especially when they are required to go to the dealership due to their vehicle’s diagnostic data not being shared with independent repair shops.
Many consumer products have become more digitized over the years. From ChatGPT to fridges, vehicles are no exception to this trend.  Nearly all new cars produced today contain telematic tracking data which helps monitor vehicle performance and diagnose system issues and other failures. This data is then uploaded wirelessly to auto manufacturers. The current technology system is crucial for repairing modern vehicles and can sometimes be the only way to diagnose an issue. The problem today lies in the fact that automakers – the owners of the data – often do not share the collected information with independent repair facilities or consumers, forcing the latter to have dealerships be the exclusive repairers.
In 2020, Massachusetts attempted to rectify this situation by proposing a law, which would require vehicle owners and independent repair locations be provided with in-depth access to the mechanical telematic data associated with maintenance and repair. Voters overwhelmingly supported the proposal with 71% saying yes to the provision.Shortly after, however, a suit was filed in federal court arguing that making the data more widely available violated federal law and posed grave security risks. The pending litigation stalled the implementation of the act until June 1, 2023, when Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Cambell announced that the law would go into effect without a decision in the case. In response, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wrote to several automakers ordering them to not comply with the state law. The NHTSA had grave concerns over the security risk of individual’s data along with the act potentially not conforming with federal law.
After discussions with other state and federal authorities, NHTSA reneged on their earlier position, and in August they announced that the Massachusetts law does not conflict with federal law and is enforceable with some minor changes to the security policy. The agency also stated that automakers should be permitted a “reasonable period of time” to put the technology in place so that the data can be safely shared to owners and repair facilities. Ben Halle, The U.S. Department of Transportation Director of Public Affairs, released a statement saying, “[t]he clarifications contained in the exchange of letters between state and federal partners ensure a path forward to promote competition and give consumers more options, while mitigating a dangerous risk to safety.” Despite the advancement with automakers, these right to repair issues are not limited to vehicles. So far in 2023, twenty states have filed legislation on the right to repair issue ranging from farm equipment, wheelchairs, and home appliances as well.
While states continue to implement various laws to address the right to repair issues through their own legislative process, a high-profile court case with wide-ranging implications is currently playing out in the California Federal Court. Tesla, the popular electric vehicle manufacturer, is currently facing an anti-trust lawsuit regarding the right to repair.Six class action suits were consolidated in June of this year, alleging that the company has engaged in anti-competitive behavior by preventing independent repair facilities from accessing telematic data necessary for repairs and maintenance. The lawsuits call Tesla’s alleged repair services and auto parts monopoly to be dismantled and to make available manuals and diagnostic tools to consumers and independent repair facilities at reasonable costs.
While the consolidated case is still in its infancy and a decision is not likely to be made for the foreseeable future, an adverse ruling for Tesla could have a precedential effect on the entire automaker industry. The case and other state laws – like the one in Massachusetts – could force the hands of manufacturers to make crucial telematic data available for both repair shops and consumers alike. While this benefits individual’s bank accounts, data experts raise concerns that the sharing of this data leaves it at an increased risk of cyberattacks by hackers. The future of the right to repair looks to be heading for consumer independence, but will consumers’ desire to pay less for repairs cost them dearly in their data security?