In Massachusetts: expected ruling on auto right to repair is just the start
A nearly two year-long federal trial highlights the thin thread by which U.S. car owners' right to repair their vehicles hangs - and the need for prompt Federal action.
“Justice delayed is justice denied” is a phrase that’s widely attributed to the 19th century British statesman William Gladstone. But the idea that there’s equivalence between denying individuals rights and simply preventing people from exercising them is much older. It is the germ behind our own Constitution’s 6th Amendment guarantee of a right to a trial “without delay.”
That ancient notion has been put to the test here in Massachusetts, where car owners have yet to enjoy the fruits of a November 2020 ballot box victory that expanded the state’s automobile right to repair law to include access to maintenance and repair data transmitted wirelessly using telematics systems. The obstacle: a lawsuit filed by auto manufacturers, which has been tied up in the U.S. District Court.
A long-awaited decision in that case may soon be upon us. Federal District Court judge Douglas Woodlock indicated he expects to hand down a decision no later than today - July 1st - following a string of delays in a case that was originally expected to be decided in November, 2021. But, trust me, Judge Woodlock’s ruling won’t be the final word on fixing your car.
Appeals almost certain
First, automakers and the Attorney General are almost certain to appeal in the event that the Judge rules against them. Given the weighty constitutional issues of state vs. federal authority that underlie the automakers’ case, this is a dispute that could find its way to the Supreme Court - a journey that could take years.
More important: automakers may respond to a loss before Judge Woodlock by turning Massachusetts vehicle owners into second class citizens: disabling telematics-enabled features rather than providing access to the wireless service and repair data as required by the law. Subaru and Kia have already taken that step, citing “compliance” with the 2020 ballot measure as the reason.
Let’s be clear: the resounding victory of Question 1 in November 2020 underscored the enduring popularity of an automobile right to repair in the Bay State. What has changed in the last decade is automakers' willingness to make peace with the desires of the electorate - their customers- especially as they cast an eye on fat revenue streams from software subscription services enabled by the wireless systems at the heart of Question 1. General Motors, for example, said it expects to generate up to $25 billion in revenue annually by 2030 purely through software and subscription services.
Telematics: a tightening noose for owners, independent repair
Absent the protections offered by Question 1, automakers will be free to block vehicle owners’ and independent repair providers’ access to the wireless service data needed to diagnose problems or arrange preventative maintenance of late model vehicles. In time, as more telematics enabled vehicles hit the road, that will starve independent repair providers - from the corner garage to AAA and Sullivan Tire - of the ability to compete with automaker-affiliated authorized repair providers who have access to that wireless data.
And there’s really no need to stop there. As I’ve noted elsewhere: using technology already deployed in vehicles today, automakers could prevent you from something as simple as changing a flat tire. Wireless RFID tags embedded in replacement tires could be required to “authenticate” to the vehicle before it was allowed to drive - a digital handshake facilitated only by proprietary software in the possession of automakers “authorized roadside assistance specialists.” Absent competition, dealerships would be free to name the place, time and price that suits them, not you. You may say ‘it’ll never happen,’ but that’s the prevailing model in the agricultural equipment market today, in which manufacturers like John Deere have used software locks to create a de-facto monopoly on repair and service.
Massachusetts: the thread holding up U.S. car owners right to repair
Of course, Massachusetts’ ‘one-of-a-kind’ law has always been a thin thread from which to hang something as important as the right of U.S. car owners to fix their own vehicle or have a choice between a dealership’s pricey offerings and the more affordable offerings at the corner garage. But for the past decade, that tenuous state of affairs has held, after automakers signed a memorandum of understanding in 2014 that recognized the terms of Masschusetts’ law nationally.
However, the growing tension between what’s best for consumers and what automakers understand to be best for their bottom lines may be what snaps that thread. So long as Massachusetts and its 3 million-odd vehicles are the only vehicles protected by the law, angry customers, disgruntled dealerships and lost sales may be a price automakers are willing to pay to retain exclusive access to their telematics system.
Federal action is needed
What’s needed is federal action to address this looming and costly imbalance in the marketplace. Fortunately, there is finally movement on Capitol Hill. Two bills, H.R. 6570, the Right to Equipable and Professional Auto Industry Repair (REPAIR) Act and H.R. 3664, the Save Money on Auto Repair Transportation (SMART) Act address changes in the business practices of automakers that have slowly tightened a noose on vehicle owners, independent repair professionals and aftermarket auto parts suppliers, drastically increasing the costs of car ownership in the process.
It is long past time for Massachusetts car owners to begin enjoying the rights they are entitled to - and the benefits of robust competition for vehicle service and repair. But voters shouldn’t fool themselves that the decision coming this week from Judge Woodlock is the end of efforts by automakers to create costly, software-enforced monopolies that benefit their bottom line at the expense of their customers and the broader economy. We need strong, decisive action from lawmakers in Washington D.C. to ensure that our nation’s century old, robust, thriving market for car parts and repair endures. That long deferred action can’t come soon enough.