September 18, 2018

Right-to-repair returns with wireless bill

Six years after Massachusetts became the first state in the country to pass a "right to repair" law, the coalition of auto repair and parts shops behind that effort is back, relaunching ahead of a push next session to update the law to address advances in car technology.

Auto repair shop owners say that by 2020 more than 90 percent of new cars and trucks will wirelessly transmit important real-time vehicle diagnostic and performance data to manufacturers, potentially inhibiting their ability to repair cars or compete with authorized dealerships.

Rep. Paul McMurtry, a Dedham Democrat, will file legislation on Tuesday with the support of Rep. Joan Meschino and Rep. John Lawn that would protect independent auto repair shops against vehicle manufacturers using wireless technology to get around the current right-to-repair information sharing aw.

The legislation, according to McMurtry and a member of the coalition, is intended to renew the discussion around right-to-repair and refresh legislators ahead of the next two-year session that starts in January.

"What I'm hoping by filing legislation before we begin next session is an opportunity to engage in conversation and it will be a priority piece of mine should I be able to return after the fall," McMurtry said.

The bill represents the latest in a string of policy debates on Beacon Hill where lawmakers have been asked to update laws to keep pace with technology, which is revolutionizing the economy, from app-based ride-hailing and short-term rental companies to online gaming and retail sales.

The Right to Repair Coalition is also relaunching its website, www.massrighttorepair.org, with a new logo and a new message: "Wireless car repair technology is moving too fast, our laws need to keep up."

"The more computers that are in cars, the more importance there is to have some tweaking of the law," said Glenn Wilder, owner of Wilder Brothers Tire Pros in Scituate.

Wilder, a prominent supporter of the first right-to-repair law, said the situation is not yet dire for independent repairers as he said it was in 2012, but he said the coalition doesn't want to wait until it becomes a bigger problem.

"I don't see it as an independent repairer emergency at this time, but I don't want to do battle after the cow is out of the gate," Wilder said.

The right-to-repair debate was one of the most heated and well-lobbied policy fights of Deval Patrick's second term as governor.

The Legislature had to twice pass bills to ensure equal access to car diagnostic repair information for dealers and independent auto shops after the first compromise bill approved on the final day of session in July 2012 was supplanted by a ballot question that voters overwhelming approved that November.

Legislators reconciled the two laws in 2013, including protections for dealerships that manufacturers wouldn't set up outside repair networks.

After auto manufacturers had for years been successful at beating back right-to-repair bills at the federal and state level, the compromise struck in Massachusetts gave rise to a national memorandum of understanding signed by manufacturers, repairers and parts dealers to avoid a domino effect in other states.

But in the Massachusetts deal automakers insisted that the information sharing agreement exempt telematics, such as the OnStar system, which were considered to be proprietary technological trade secrets.

"I'm a big proponent of technology and innovation and creativity and I remember telematics was a concern and was carved out and now it's coming back around full circle," McMurtry said.

Wilder gave one example he knew of a 2015 Cadillac that had the check-engine light on. The OnStar system realized that and directed the driver to make an appointment at one of two nearby authorized dealers, cutting the independent repairer out of the equation.

"They have a captive audience," Wilder said. He said that he fears as more cars are equipped with advanced computer systems, more data about a vehicle's health and performance can be gathered and kept private by the manufacturers unless the law is updated.

However, not everyone who was a party to the 2012 right-to-repair negotiations is yet convinced that there is a problem that needs fixing.

Robert O'Koniewski, of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association, said Wilder's example of the Cadillac doesn't sound like an issue of access to data for repairers, but rather good marketing by the automakers to steer consumers to their products and services.

"Certainly if the right-to-repair folks have some legitimate complaints of the factory's inability or lack of commitment to compliance, I'd love to hear what they have to say, but we haven't heard any of an issues on the dealers' end and its hard to write a law to chase hypotheticals," he said.

O'Koniewski said dealers would potentially be concerned if auto manufacturers could start using wireless technology to reboot car computers or fix small problems in the car remotely and circumvent the dealers, which do a lot of business on recalls and service under warranty.

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