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The Battle Rages On

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The struggle for the Right to Repair is nothing new. The automotive aftermarket–and other industry aftermarkets alike–have been working to get the tools and information they need from OEMs to make safe and complete repairs on a wide array of devices ranging from phones to cars for decades. 

According to the Repair Association, the struggle for access to repair data can be traced back to a U.S. Department of Justice antitrust order filed against IBM in 1956 that forced the company to allow for aftermarket repairers to have access to proper equipment and information.

Fast forward more than half a century, and the front line in the battle for the Right to Repair in the automotive sector has been shifted to Massachusetts, where in 2020 nearly 2.6 million residents voted to implement statewide legislation that ensured the Right to Repair for all aftermarket providers.

In the nearly two years since then, the law has been challenged by the Alliance of Automotive Innovation–an industry lobby group made up of more than 30 automotive and technology OEMs and a decision in that suit has been delayed by at least 12 months.

The Backstory

When Question 1 was presented to Massachusetts voters, it clearly laid out what a ‘yes’ vote supported and what a ‘no’ vote opposed. Just under 2.6 million voters–or roughly 75 percent of the votes cast in that election–voted ‘yes’ and chose to enact a statewide measure that would require OEMs to install in their vehicles a standardized, open-data platform that would allow aftermarket facilities to retrieve diagnostic information and repair procedures through a mobile app starting with model year 2022. 

Aaron Lowe, senior vice president of government and regulatory affairs for the Auto Care Association, says this very clearly and plainly indicated overwhelming support for the independent repair industry.

“Anyone who has wireless data access has to make sure that the customer could direct that repair and diagnostic data to an independent shop from the vehicle if they want to do business with them,” Lowe says. “That was to ensure there was continued competition, that companies could compete for repair business.”

Two weeks after the measure passed in November 2020, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation filed a suit to challenge the decision. A trial was set for the suit in June 2021.

In the meantime, automakers such as Kia and Subaru began disabling all telematic systems in their vehicles in Massachusetts as a way to comply without having to develop the system required by Question 1. 

After a week-long trial in June 2021, Lowe says it seemed a decision was imminent; Judge Douglas Woodlock had expressed wanting to have a decision within a month or two.

Then came a delay. And another. And then three more. 

The most recent one, which Woodlock issued in April, pushed a potential decision for the suit to July 2022, well over a year since the trial started.

“It’s an amazing amount of time, and the delays are surprising, considering that in the earliest stages of the trial he was wanting to get this decided as soon as possible,” Lowe says.

What does that mean for the aftermarket?

Lowe says it’s a concerning trend – automakers continue to install telematics technology and other ADAS systems without a way to ensure competition for repairs.

The main issue isn’t a lack of ability to comply with the voter-approved mandate, Lowe says – the tech and systems needed are already available and can be implemented fairly easily.

“We're really not that far off at all. It's really a case of the manufacturer deciding they're going to comply rather than just saying ‘we're just going to stick our feet in the ground,’” he says. “There are a lot of different avenues where data is being shared and is done so securely and safely. This technology is not really rocket science. It can be done.”

Instead, it’s a matter of control, and right now OEMs have done everything they can to make sure they remain the “gatekeepers” of a vehicle’s data for as long as possible. 

This is where the lawsuit in Massachusetts becomes even more important. Judge Woodlock’s decision would be the first of its kind in the automotive space, and it has the ability to set the tone of the Right to Repair debate for the rest of the country.

It's hard to speculate on exactly what the impact is going to be until we actually see what he says,” Lowe says. “He has a lot of different options and how he can rule on this … we need to see what the substance is.”

This drawn-out process has already benefited OEMs, who have been able to delay compliance on the grounds that federal law preempts the state initiative. To make matters worse, whoever loses the lawsuits is likely to file an appeal, which will drag the process out even more.

“The more this judge delays actually issuing a verdict, the longer we go without actually addressing this whole issue of data, access and compliance,” Lowe says. “It’s a loss ultimately for the car owners in the state of Massachusetts, but it’s a loss for the aftermarket as well.”

Hope on the Horizon

As frustrating as the current situation is for the aftermarket, Lowe says there are reasons ot be optimistic.

He points to the fact that a bill such as the one Massachusetts voted for received such overwhelming support as key evidence that the general public is siding with the aftermarket.

A similar bill to the one in Massachusetts is currently working its way through the federal legislature that would impose similar mandates.

As long as shop owners continue to help educate their customers on why the Right to Repair is important and how they can support local efforts to pass legislation protecting that right, Lowe says the aftermarket is in–and will continue to be in–good fighting shape.

“It's critically important that, with technology changing, the owner of the vehicle continues to be the one deciding who's going to be able to access their vehicle to do the repairs. That's ultimately what's at stake here,” Lowe says. “We're going to continue to fight to make sure that repair continues to be open and competitive.”

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