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OPINION

Rusty Savignac: Vote no on Question 1, ‘Right to Repair’

Question 1 is a complicated mess and the ads seem contradictory. But to technicians like me, the issue is clear: I’m voting no.

A summary of Ballot Question 1 in the Nov. 3 Massachusetts election, known as a "Right to Repair" law, from the handbook provided to voters by the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
A summary of Ballot Question 1 in the Nov. 3 Massachusetts election, known as a "Right to Repair" law, from the handbook provided to voters by the Secretary of the Commonwealth.Bill Sikes/Associated Press

After more than 40 years operating a vehicle repair shop and several years helping independent shops with diagnostics and vehicle programming, I’ve found myself being asked what to make of Question 1. People tell me that the ballot question is confusing and the ads are misleading. I understand their confusion. The question is a complicated mess and the ads seem contradictory. But to technicians like me, the issue is clear: I’m voting no on Question 1.

The Right to Repair Act is the law in Massachusetts, and it will still be the law no matter what happens on Election Day. The law requires a level playing field between dealer repair shops and independent repair shops and ensures that any independent can plug into a vehicle and access the same diagnostic data as car dealers to fix customer vehicles. Repair shops pay for scan tools from the automakers or from the aftermarket, and the vast majority of independent shops use aftermarket scan tools for diagnostics. The most popular of these already have licensing agreements with automakers, so their tools provide all the information needed to diagnose and repair a vehicle. The law works well for today’s vehicles, and I’m unaware of any restrictions on independents versus dealers.

So if all this information is already available to mechanics, where is the risk we have heard so much about? The risk comes from expanding wireless access to vehicle computers.

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The modern Internet-connected vehicle is essentially a computer on wheels, and it has the ability to receive and transmit data just like your smartphone: how often you brake, how fast you drive, where you go, what entertainment you listen to, etc. Vehicles that currently generate this data are exchanging it with the respective automakers’ servers. Some of this information is related to a vehicle’s service and repair, some of it is for driver convenience like navigation — much of it is for vehicle safety systems.

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Question 1 mandates that every make and model of vehicle sold in Massachusetts connect to an “open access platform” that has direct access to the car and cannot only download information but upload it as well. Effectively, the ballot question opens a wireless gateway into your vehicle’s computers and lowers the bar to entry for anyone with computer knowledge and malicious intent. National and international standards adopted in 2020 mandate that car manufacturers protect their vehicle computer systems against cyberattacks and protect and authenticate wireless and cellular traffic into the telematics unit. Question 1 prevents automakers from overseeing access to these systems. By unlocking this door, voters could risk malware, ransomware, and other viruses and dangers finding their way into vehicles and may end up needing antivirus and malware protection for their cars.

Why would we open this lock if local mechanics already have access to all the information, including telematics information, necessary to fix cars? Because Question 1 is not actually about repair; it is not actually about local mechanics versus automakers; and it is not a David-versus-Goliath fight. Question 1 is largely funded by the aftermarket auto parts industry. AutoZone, Advanced Auto Parts, O’Reilly Auto Parts, NAPA, and their national trade associations have spent millions in Massachusetts because they want “in” on all the data your car generates.

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These national retail chains want access to your car’s display panel and real-time vehicle location. They want to be able to send advertising directly into your car, to show you more ads and sell you parts and services. Question 1 includes the ability to send commands to the vehicle.

Many independent repair shops are supporting Question 1 because they believe it is a life preserver for the day-to-day frustrations with new technology. But the quesion is not a substitute for proper tooling, training, and service information.

Dealers and independent repair shops have a symbiotic relationship. There are far more independent repair shops than dealer repair shops, and more than 70 percent of Massachusetts car owners already go to local mechanics for post-warranty repairs. That will not change, no matter what happens with the ballot question.

Consumer choice, the balance of the market’s demands, and the existing law ensure that independent mechanics will remain a critical piece of the car repair market. Question 1 is simply not what it is perceived to be. It is an unnecessary data grab by national retail parts chains. As a mechanic, I am voting no, and I urge voters to do the same.

Rusty Savignac is a mechanic and consultant for independent vehicle repair shops.