Election 2020

Massachusetts Voters Affirm the Right To Repair Your Own Car

The most expensive ballot initiative campaign in Massachusetts history ended with a resounding victory for property rights.

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The most expensive ballot initiative campaign in Massachusetts history ended with a resounding victory for property rights as voters approved the so-called "right-to-repair" ballot initiative.

With more than 96 percent of precincts reporting by Wednesday afternoon, nearly 75 percent of voters had approved Massachusetts Question 1. The initiative's passage means that car manufacturers will be required to provide vehicle diagnostic data to consumers and independent mechanic shops. Voters in the state approved a similar right-to-repair ballot measure in 2012, but this year's election closes a loophole that auto manufacturers had been using to skirt the requirements established by that earlier vote.

The state's existing law—which became the basis for new national standards implemented by the auto industry in 2014—required that vehicle diagnostic data was made available via an open platform. In short, that means that if you own a Toyota, you don't have to go to a Toyota-affiliated repair shop to find out why your "check engine" light is on. Any repair shop can plug a device into any car and read the data.

But the earlier law exempted wireless data transmitted via a car's telematics system. Increasingly, car manufacturers have been relying on telematics to transmit crucial data, potentially leaving independent repair shops in the dark. The new ballot initiative closes that loophole and requires wirelessly transmitted data to fall under the same open platform rules starting in 2022.

What might seem like a technical adjustment to a pretty uncontroversial rule, however, turned into a major political battle in the state. The Massachusetts Right To Repair Coalition, a campaign group formed by independent mechanics and national car repair chains like Auto Zone and O'Reilly Auto Parts, dumped more than $24 million into the race. The Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, a group backed by Ford, General Motors, Toyota, and other car manufacturers, spent more than $26 million opposing the initiative.

Much of the campaign centered around sensational accusations that the initiative's passage would allow cars to be remotely hacked for nefarious reasons. Even the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration waded into the fight, warning in a letter to lawmakers in July that Question 1's passage would create "an incredible amount of danger."

Even though there are "some genuine concerns that increasing access to a car's data could set the platform up for cybersecurity vulnerabilities," Reason's Scott Shackford explained last month, "that's an argument about being careful with technological development, not an excuse for depriving consumers of access to the data produced by the vehicles that they own."

Consumers should have the right to control the data created by the products they own—and that's true not only for automobiles. Consider the outcome of this expensive ballot initiative fight in Massachusetts to be one more small victory for freedom on an Election Day where that was an under-the-radar trend.

NEXT: Democrats’ Crumbling Hopes of a Blue Wave Make Divided Government More Likely

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  1. …the initiative’s passage would allow cars to be remotely hacked for nefarious reasons.

    I don’t want someone to hack my car and turn it into a lowrider!

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  2. This is always one of those cases that creates a kind of crossroads for libertarians. There are reasonable arguments on both sides. For me, I lean ‘right to repair’, but I’m also one of those alt-right populists that has become increasingly suspicious of corporate power over the last ten years or so.

    Pick your poison.

    1. That’s the rub. This measure tells manufacturers what to do; that violates their right to property. I come down against the government’s side in this, because government has no business telling anybody what to do, as long as what people do doesn’t harm anybody. I believe if manufacturers were left alone, third parties would step into the breach and restore the ability to repair. They don’t now because government has come down on manufacturers’ side.

      This is similar to government mandating or forbidding closed shops. The proper response is for government to get out of the middle and leave both sides alone. Don’t tell businesses and employees they have to have closed shops; don’t tell unions they can’t have closed shops. For cars, same thing: don’t forbid car owners from buying third party products to defeat manufacturer secretiveness; don’ forbid manufacturers from trying to be secretive.

      In both cases, free markets would sort things out.

      1. True, the laws that the manufacturers use to prevent people from reverse engineering their data formats came from the government in the first place.

        Aa a cypherpunk, I fall firmly in the “if it’s my property, I’ll read every last fucking byte off it if I want to” camp. 😉

      2. Automobiles have not been a free market since the late 60s .

        Otherwise I’d agree.

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    2. I would not have voted against it. Maybe automakers have property rights in the trouble codes and other data regarding the car. But it pisses me off that the manufacturers withold that data from me as a vehicle owner. I have no obligation to protect their property rights, so I would not. Do they really have property rights in data about cars other people own, that they can rightfully enforce against the vehicle owner?

  3. Real cars don’t have computers.
    “front wheels steer, back wheels spin”

    1. It’s true, this is not a problem I have with my ’74 Satellite… 😀

    2. Yeah, but most people under 30 (40?) consider a car as a mobile entertainment and communication device, an iPhone with wheels. Most don’t know or care how the mobility actually functions; those that do are giddy with techy solutions to what used to be simple mechanical systems.

    3. They also don’t have automatic transmissions (or anti-lock breaks since the manual transmission plus good driving practice makes them pointless at best and a hazzard at worst).

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  6. wireless data transmitted via a car’s telematics system
    ….
    would allow cars to be remotely hacked for nefarious reasons

    Seems like a very simple solution – get rid of the wireless transmitting of telemetry data. No wireless transmitter, no remote hacking. Physical access to the vehicle’s diagnostics port required.

    1. You Luddite! Don’t you know that everything and everyone must be networked wirelessly 24/7? How else will we achieve consumer paradise, Big Brother, and the Matrix?

  7. This seems more like the government dictating to car makers how they must design their products, rather than a win for property rights.

    1. That ship left port 50 years ago

  8. Sounds like undue government interference in private companies’ design of their products.

    1. Is this not an issue that should be left to the states’ and the people to decide for themselves?

      1. Except that Federal laws (FMVSS) mandate design considerations for the manufacturers, and impose strict liability where they aren’t followed. Additionally OBD and OBDII (on board diagnositics, “the codes” – well, a bunch of them, anyways) are part of an overarching federal emissions scheme (with Exception for CA and a few other states to require CA’s stricter emissions standards).

        The aftermarket modifications, alterations, and reprogrammings made possible by this legislation contain no such consumer protections, and the legal obligations are easily evaded by labeling “for off-road use only”, while the vehicle manufacturer remains on the hook for warranty claims (as determined by the local dealer/repair shop – who may have their own financial involvement in the modifications) and liability in the case of accidents/injury, where the cost of proving, CSI-like, that the alterations caused the fault are nearly technically impossible, but well beyond the understanding (and often, the care) of the jury.

        From experience. Repeatedly.

  9. “Massachusetts Voters Affirm the Right To Repair Your Own Car.”

    Such bullshit.
    People shouldn’t repair their own cars, computers, toasters, etc.
    That job should be left to the real professionals in The State, like social workers.

    1. Or political prisoners?

  10. Let’s not forget that access to this data is often used to evade emissions standards or “improve” engine performance, at the expense of durability – then erase evidence of the alterations before presenting it to the manufacturer (or their State-mandated agent, the local dealership) for free diagnosis and repair pursuant to the warranty.

    I can appreciate the manufacturer’s position here, as its their liability which is dramatically expanded by this legislation.

  11. I went back and forth on how I felt about this one. Then at the last minute I voted “yes” mostly for the reasons given in this article. But in retrospect, a more principled position would have been to let car manufacturers impose whatever restrictions they want on the sale of their cars, and leave customers free to buy something else if they don’t like it. That could give a wise auto-maker an edge by advertising an open format for their vehicle telematics, or let customers choose more privacy if they wanted — all without government imposing any restrictions! But hey, this is Massachusetts after all.

  12. More regulations! More government telling automakers what they have to do! Yay, libertarianism!

    If customers want to place a premium on cars that come with specs, they have always been free to do so.

  13. I voted against this. By my reading, it essential creates a government mandated backdoor into the telematics of the cars, that needs to be up and running within a year. The whole thing is going to be a boondoggle.

  14. That’s the rub. This measure tells manufacturers what to do; that violates their right to property. I come down against the government’s side in this, because government has no business telling anybody what to do, as long as what people do doesn’t harm anybody. I believe if manufacturers were left alone, third parties would step into the breach and restore the ability to repair. They don’t now because government has come down on manufacturers’ side.

    This is similar to government mandating or forbidding closed shops. The proper response is for government to get out of the middle and leave both sides alone. Don’t tell businesses and employees they have to have closed shops; don’t tell unions they can’t have closed shops. For cars, same thing: don’t forbid car owners from buying third party products to defeat manufacturer secretiveness; don’ forbid manufacturers from trying to be secretive.
    https://www.turbo1.co/2020/09/2021-id-4-1st-edition-review.html

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