BOSTON — Auto shop owners on Monday urged lawmakers to fix loopholes in the state's "right to repair" law to prevent another costly ballot battle.
The Right to Repair coalition, which includes owners of auto repair shops North of Boston, wants lawmakers to update the nearly eight-year-old, voter-approved law that requires car makers to share diagnostic and repair information.
Lawmakers are weighing more than a dozen bills to revise the law, as a referendum inches its way toward the November ballot.
Independent shop owners frame the issue as one of consumer protection, claiming automakers fleece the public by using wireless technology to divert repair business to dealerships.
"Car manufacturers have created a locked system in which they are the gatekeeper, and neither the consumer nor independent repair shops have access," Tommy Hickey, the coalition's director, told members of the Legislature's Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure on Monday.
Hickey said the law unfairly allows manufacturers to use wireless technology to favor dealers' repair shops. Besides the fiscal impact on independent shops, coalition members say consumers end up paying more for repairs made by dealers.
Lawmakers who back the changes to the law, including Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, and Rep. Jerald Parisella, D-Beverly, have filed more than a dozen nearly identical bills to update it. Finegold said in written testimony that independent repair shops would not have access to personal user data under the proposals.
"Rather, it would create an even playing field among all car repair providers and allow consumers to use whichever mechanic they know and trust," he said.
Those who oppose changing the law say there's no need because it anticipated advances in technology, such as wireless systems.
"There is no loophole," Wayne Weikel, director of state government affairs for the Alliance of Automobile Innovation, which represents automakers, told the panel. "There is a level playing field when it comes to access of the repair information. Because all shops have access to the information, a consumer is able to go to a dealer, an independent shop or even make the repairs themselves."
Members of the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, which includes the alliance and other trade groups, say the move could compromise privacy and security for vehicle owners whose diagnostic data would be shared with third-parties.
"The more third parties have access to that data, the more likely it is to be misused or stolen," Christina Fisher, Northeast executive director of the national repair network TechNet, told the panel.
The state’s existing "right to repair" law requires automakers to provide dealers and small shops access to the computer codes needed to diagnose and repair certain problems. Critics say that doesn't include the real-time vehicle data, called telematics, which uses wireless technology to transmit information about a car to certified dealerships.
The proposed ballot measure includes a provision that requires manufacturers selling cars in the state, starting with model year 2022, to include an "open access" platform accessible by dealerships, car owners, independent repair shops and other third-party groups.
The Right to Repair coalition has cleared several hurdles toward putting the question on the November ballot, including collecting at least 103,634 signatures from supporters. Under the state's initiative petition process, lawmakers get a crack at approving the proposed changes before they get put before voters.
Those on both sides of the ballot question expect a costly fight if lawmakers don't take action before the May 5 deadline to act.
The 2012 "right to repair" question was one of the most heavily lobbied ballot issues in the state in recent years, with both sides spending millions of dollars. Backers of the referendum raised and spent more than $2.3 million — six times more than opponents — which helped sway public opinion.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.