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Who’s allowed to fix your car when your car is basically a computer?
Feb 16, 2022

Who’s allowed to fix your car when your car is basically a computer?

As cars feature more and more tech, states are starting to address who gets access to all that data.

Massachusetts is currently the only state with an active right-to-repair law, ensuring third-party vendors can access materials and data they need to fix some modern tech. That measure is one that companies like Apple, John Deere and many others oppose because they’d like to keep those repairs in house.

Part of the Massachusetts law requires automakers to make a car’s internal data system available to independent repair shops. So Kia and Subaru disabled those systems on new cars sold in the state.

Aaron Perzanowski teaches law at Case Western Reserve University and is author of the book “The Right to Repair: Reclaiming the Things We Own.” He explained existing and proposed legislation aimed at giving car owners greater control of their own data. The following is an edited transcript of his conversation with Adams.

Aaron Perzanowski: Part of what we’ve seen is the increasing introduction of software, network communications into devices that used to be fairly straightforward mechanical devices. And that makes the data all that more important for people who want to engage in these sorts of repairs. That means that access to software code and data more broadly are really crucial in the repair landscape.

Kimberly Adams: I guess an example of this seems to be what’s happening with Kia and Subaru dealers in Massachusetts. Can you lay out that situation for me?

Perzanowski: So back in 2012, Massachusetts passed a law that mandated that consumers and independent repair shops be given access to data necessary to engage in the repair of automobiles. More and more of that information is being transmitted using telematics systems — these are wireless communications, where data generated and recorded on the vehicle can be sent to the manufacturer or the dealer. And so Massachusetts updated its law to include these telematics systems. And so we’ve seen litigation from the car manufacturers challenging that law, saying they can’t possibly comply with its requirements in the given time frame. And so some car manufacturers have responded by simply shutting off their telematics systems for vehicles sold within the state of Massachusetts.

Adams: How do you manage giving third parties access to repair something as crucial as a vehicle and how it works when opening up those data streams could potentially open up vulnerabilities that the manufacturers complain about?

Perzanowski: The Massachusetts law is, at its core, an effort to shift control over access to data from carmakers to car owners, right? It’s an effort to empower car owners to understand the information that’s being generated by their vehicles and to share that information with their local mom-and-pop repair shop rather than feeling compelled to go to the dealer for repairs. And the response from the carmakers is to say, “Well, look, if we share this information, that opens consumers and their vehicles up to security risks.” I think one important response to that argument is that we already know and have known for a decade now that these systems are already insecure. If you talk to security experts, many of them will tell you that what is actually needed here is more attention being focused on these flaws so that carmakers are forced to build better and more secure systems than they’ve been selling to the public over the last decade.

Adams: What’s next for right-to-repair legislation at the federal level?

Perzanowski: There are four pieces of repair legislation pending right now. One focuses on the agricultural sector. We have a piece of legislation that focuses on these telematics issues in the automotive space. There’s another piece of legislation that focuses on the question of design patent protections. And then finally, there’s a piece of legislation that would extend some currently temporary exemptions under U.S. copyright law that prevent people from bypassing digital locks that stand in the way of repair.

Wired has a story about how it feels to be a customer caught up in the right-to-repair fight in Massachusetts and the ongoing lawsuits by automakers pushing back against the state law.

We reached out to Kia and Subaru for a comment on this story. Kia said in a statement that the “standardized, open-access platform” required by the Massachusetts law doesn’t exist yet, and that’s why the company says compliance is impossible. Subaru did not respond by publication time.

Meanwhile, at least 27 states across the country introduced some form of right-to-repair legislation last year, according to the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, which has a map of those states and other information tracking the progress of these efforts.

And the right-to-repair movement isn’t just an issue in the United States. Canada and Australia are also working on their own legislation to address it, and the European Commission has promised to deliver a right to repair proposal for that bloc of countries later this year, according to the DIY repair company iFixit.

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The team

Daniel Shin Daniel Shin
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer