Ballot Question 1 in Massachusetts has passed by a vote margin of about 75% to 25%. This successful ballot initiative called the “right to repair”, should now become law in just two months. If one MIT expert’s prediction is correct, manufacturers will now stop selling automobiles in the state.
This marks the second time Massachusetts voters have backed such a bill. These ballot initiatives aim to ensure that private vehicle repair shops in the state can access electronic data that manufacturers store in the vehicle’s computer related to needed repairs and maintenance. This new bill specifically expands the existing law to also cover data that vehicles store and then send back and forth to automakers using the telematics systems today's vehicles almost universally come equipped with.
In an opinion piece published in Forbes, MIT researcher Dr. Bryan Reimer called the bill’s passing a “…colossal automotive safety threat.” He predicts cyber attacks will be the result. On a video conference with the membership of the New England Motor Press Association, Dr. Reimer joined lobbyists opposing the bill in an effort to convince media members of the initiative’s danger. He even predicted that this is such a threat to automakers’ liability that they may discontinue selling vehicles in the state if it passes. We in the press know and respect Dr. Reimer. He is one of the top experts on the planet on the topic of connected cars. I would never question his judgment on such a topic. However, setting aside whether Question 1should have passed, I can explain to readers why Question 1 did pass. Here’s why.
In a nutshell, Massachusetts voters are tired of being raked over the coals by auto dealerships for repairs. Let’s look at one real-world example of the sort of repair frustration vehicle owners feel. This past month, in a vehicle I own, all of the dash warning lights illuminated. I took the vehicle to a private shop mechanic who used a scan tool to check the codes. Most were redundant, but the key one was “Random Misfire.” Without much more to go on, he suggested we clear the codes and see if they re-appear.
They soon did. This time, I took the vehicle to an authorized dealer who said that when this code appears, it means that the alternator needs to be replaced because it is operating outside of the required parameters to prevent that code. No real problem, but unless I wanted to drive around with the dash lights lit up like a Christmas Tree, I had to replace the alternator. At a cost of $961 before taxes. The four-year-old vehicle had 29,000 miles on the odometer.
There are two reasons this example ties directly to the right to repair bill and vehicle owners' frustrations. First off, the secret meaning behind the codes that the dealer was able to decipher should be available to any mechanic under the existing law. Second, an alternator replacement at a private shop costs less than half what the dealer wanted to charge for a repair that seemingly should be covered by the engine’s powertrain warranty. After all, it was an engine misfire code. And engines are covered in the powertrain warranty.
After a quick chat with the brand’s owner advocacy hotline, the manufacturer stepped up to pay for that repair as a courtesy. Swell folks. I appreciated it, and this help may mean that I buy another vehicle from this brand in the future. I have bought four (all new) in the past.
While at the dealer's service center, I asked the dealer what the cost to perform the 30K service would be. He pointed to a sign and said “$499.95.” I noted that two of the priciest items on the sign's worklist were not necessary according to my owner’s manual. He said, “Yes, you are right, we won’t perform those two things, but we charge $499.95 anyway.” I passed. My local mechanic did the work the manual specified for $189. Again illustrating the value of a local mechanic option. But it does not end here.
I did ask the dealer to perform the oil and filter change since I had the car in the shop anyway. The charge was reasonable. However, when I picked the car up and checked the oil myself, it was well over an inch above the fill line. I asked the dealer if this was OK, and they said they would correct it. They did so, and I was on my way. Unfortunately, when my local mechanic had the car in for the rest of the 30K service he noticed the oil drain plug was leaking. Even with two attempts, the dealer could not change the oil right.
I'm a recovering engineer and techno-geek. Unlike many owners, I love infotainment systems. I can reprogram them to lock and unlock the doors the way I like and adjust the cabin lighting settings with my eyes closed on any vehicle. I can make Android Auto work wirelessly in 10 seconds flat in a vehicle I have never been in before. And I love active driver-assist features, like lane centering and auto braking. However, I find little use for telematics. Why? Because I know that my smartphone can handle all the needed communications that benefit me. And I really don’t want my automaker to be sending constant small "over-the-air" (OTA) updates to the vehicle. Telematics is a profit center for automakers, not an aid to vehicle owners.
Question 1 has now passed overwhelmingly. The reason it did had nothing to do with telematics and everything to do with mystery repair codes only dealers can translate, $1,000 alternators, and botched jobs done by places that should know better.
John Goreham is a life-long car nut and an associate editor here at Torque News. John's focus areas are technology, safety, and green vehicles. In the 1990s, he was part of a team that built a solar-electric vehicle from scratch. His was the role of battery thermal control designer. For 20 years he applied his engineering and sales talents in the high tech world and published numerous articles in technical journals such as Chemical Processing Magazine. In 2008 he retired from that career and dedicated himself to chasing his dream of being an auto writer. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on Twitter, and view his credentials at Linkedin.
Repair shop vehicle image by John Goreham. Re-use with permission only.