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Right-To-Repair Redux: A Short Debate On Massachusetts Ballot Question 1

Mechanics look under the hood of a car.
File photo
The Republican / masslive.com/photos

This coming election, Massachusetts voters have two statewide ballot questions in front of them. As we have in past elections, we're bringing you short debates on each ballot question.

Massachusetts ballot Question 1 would expand how much vehicle diagnostic and repair information is available to independent repair shops and vehicle owners.

Joining us for a short debate: Tommy Hickey from the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition, a group supporting the ballot question, and Conor Yunits from the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, which opposes the question.

Kari Njiiri, NEPM: Let's start by looking back to 2012, when the Right to Repair initiative was approved by 86% of Massachusetts voters. It enabled vehicle owners and independent mechanics to have access to the same vehicle diagnostic and repair information made available to manufacturers, dealers and authorized repair facilities. Tommy, why is this new ballot petition needed?

Tommy Hickey: Like you said, in 2012, we passed the original Right to Repair law. It was voted at 86% — it's the highest passing ballot initiative in Mass. history. But there was a carve-out in the law for any wireless communication for a system called telematics. So, as cars become more computerized — and this year, 2020, up to 90% of new cars will have this new technology that's not covered under the law — giving car manufacturers a monopoly on wireless diagnostic and repair information.

So this ballot initiative will close that loophole by mandating that car manufacturers give owners direct access to their diagnostic and repair information, and allow them to authorize an independent repair or dealer of their choice — putting the consumer as the gatekeeper of their own diagnostic and repair information.

Just define telematics.

Tommy Hickey: Telematics is a wireless communication system. Basically, it's like sensors on your car that can give you real-time diagnostic and health behavior. It's like a Fitbit for your car, meaning they can tell you if your brake pads are low, if you have a piston misfiring from third to fourth gear, if you have low tire pressure, things of that nature. We want to make sure that the owner will get direct access to that so that they can control where that information goes.

Conor, why does your group oppose the petition?

Conor Yunits: For starters, because we already have Right to Repair, as we just discussed. And it works extremely well. I mean, Tommy and I fundamentally disagree on whether or not there is a carve-out for telematics. In our view, the law addresses telematics. There's an entire graph about it. It ensures that any information that's only available via telematics and is necessary to diagnose and repair a car must be made available to local mechanics.

So, in our view, this is already covered. And instead, what Question 1 would do is expand access to the people that are funding this campaign — notably the AutoZone, the O'Reilly [Auto Parts], the NAPA Auto Parts — for $21 million in out-of-state money into this question. And we don't think that's necessary.

We don't think it's safe, because Question 1 creates an access point and open access platform and a mobile application on an extremely rushed timeline. And that would inevitably open up... a gateway to those with bad intentions who would like to cause harm to customers or vehicles.

Tommy, your response?

Tommy Hickey: We don't see this as being covered by the law. One of the most important parts of the 2012 law was a standardization piece, meaning that it had to be the standardized information, so that 26 different car manufacturers didn't have 26 different tools and 26 different ways of fixing a car, because it priced out independent repair shops.

There's nothing that states anything about fair and reasonable pricing. There's nothing about timing. And, honestly, we see it as inadequate and ambiguous, the way it's written. They say it's already covered. If that were true, they would allow the passage of this ballot initiative.

If you look at the language, it says to diagnose, maintain and repair the car. So this clearly is not covered. It's not covered sufficiently. And we need to make sure that... moving forward, as we move to a wireless society, and these cars start to become more computerized, that independent repair shops and consumers have a choice of where they get their car repaired.

Conor, advertisements opposing the proposed initiative are calling it dangerous, as you said, claiming sexual predators would be able to target vulnerable women. They further claim that domestic violence survivors' advocates oppose Question 1 because it would enable abusers to track and monitor their victims. How so?

Conor Yunits: We've got a number of different advertisements addressing a number of different problems with this law. The one you just referenced on domestic violence is based on testimony from the California Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, which was opposed to a similar measure in California. That was the only prior attempt to get access to this wireless information and create an access point. It should be noted that no other state in the country allows this information. The national funders behind this effort are trying to use Massachusetts as their guinea pig,

This is a real concern. Any time you increase access to information, those with malicious intents... will use that information to harm individuals.

Tommy, why are opponents wrong about this? How is this not dangerous?

Tommy Hickey: This has nothing to do with GPS and personal information. [It] should be noted that the Jane Doe organization, who did submit testimony, has since evolved after finding out that this is not a California piece that the car manufacturers always compare this to. This is about getting your car fixed. This is an update to a law that was already voted on.

A number of cybersecurity experts have written about this. The Security Ledger is some of the biggest cybersecurity experts in Massachusetts. Bruce Schneier teaches cybersecurity at MIT. It's been written about extensively.

Again, we're after diagnostic and repair information: how your car is operating. And we want it to go to the owner. We think the owner should be the gatekeeper of this. Right now, you plug into an OBD port and you get diagnostic repair information. That OBD port is becoming restricted, and they're moving to a wireless communication system. And we want to make sure the spirit of the 2012 law, which is a level playing field, stays intact as technology advances.

Residents have been inundated by many millions of dollars worth of advertising. Tommy, your organization is largely funded by auto parts suppliers and manufacturers. And Conor, your group's money comes from automakers. Everybody has something to gain or lose here. So why should voters believe any of your arguments? I'll start with you, Tommy.

Tommy Hickey: Sure. So this Right to Repair Coalition consists of 1,600 independent repair shops. But, as you said, we are AutoZone, we are O'Reilly. There's 40,000 jobs here in Massachusetts in the aftermarket that depend on a competitive market to be able to keep up with technology.

So we're all about a level playing field. We believe that if the consumer can get the right to choose, that's what's most important, because without an aftermarket, we all know what happens with pricing in the market. There'll be less choice, and consumers will have to pay for it, or they'll be forced into dealerships for repairs, which are 30% more expensive.

We are the same group that not only is defending these 40,000 jobs, but defending a right for consumers to choose where to get their car repaired. 

Conor, can you respond?

Conor Yunits: This entire question is based on this complete myth that somehow if Question 1 doesn't pass, local mechanics will be put out of business. Local independent mechanics are a critical piece of the infrastructure. They already perform more than 70% of post-warranty work. They're not going anywhere. They're not being put out of business by this. They are a critical part of the infrastructure.

In fact, the repair industry would not function without them. Everyone believes they should have access to information. That's what the existing law protects, and that's why folks should vote no on Question 1. It's not necessary, and it increases risk for no reason.

Check out our companion interview with a reporter, Fact-Checking Arguments Over Massachusetts Ballot Question 1.

Kari Njiiri is a senior reporter and longtime host and producer of "Jazz Safari," a musical journey through the jazz world and beyond, broadcast Saturday nights on NEPM Radio. He's also the local host of NPR’s "All Things Considered."
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