BOSTON – Auto companies are required to provide software and diagnostic data to repair shops and vehicle owners, under a ballot question overwhelmingly approved six years ago.
But a coalition of independent shops says the law needs updating to close loopholes that put them at a disadvantage.
The Right to Repair coalition, which includes several auto repair shops North of Boston, has filed a proposed ballot question calling for an update to the 2013 state law that requires car manufacturers to share diagnostic and repair information.
Independent shop owners say it's an issue of consumer protection, arguing that auto manufacturers are fleecing the public by using wireless technology to divert business to dealerships.
"They've got their eyes in your car without your permission," said Barry Steinberg, owner of Direct Tire & Auto Service, which has several shops, including one in Peabody, and is part of the coalition. "They're controlling the car that you bought. That's wrong."
Steinberg said many new vehicles transmit repair and diagnostic information to the dealerships, and direct owners to use them for repairs such brakes or oil changes.
The technology, called telematics, doesn't provide that information to the car owner or an independent shop, he said, which edges out small businesses owners like him.
Besides the financial impact on Mom-and-Pop repair shops, Steinberg said, consumers end up paying more for maintenance at dealerships.
"It's going to drive up costs because there are less choices," he said. "If you buy a lawnmower and there's only one shop to repair it, what would happen to the price of those repairs?"
Opponents of the ballot question say there's no need to update the law because it anticipated advances in technology, such as wireless systems.
The Coalition for Safe & Secure Data, which includes auto dealerships and manufacturers, is framing the fight as a privacy issue. It contends that independent shops are making a "data grab" for information from consumers.
"Repair shops have access to all the data they need to service your vehicle, and they will continue to in the future," said Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for the coalition. "This proposal is not about who can repair your car. This is about third parties that want the ability to remotely access your driving habits, patterns, and location in real-time."
The state’s existing "right to repair" law requires automakers to provide dealers and independent shops access to computer codes needed to diagnose and repair certain car problems. Critics say that doesn't include real-time vehicle data.
The proposed ballot measure includes a provision that, starting with model year 2022, manufacturers that sell cars in Massachusetts must include an "open access platform” that can be accessed by the owner, car dealerships as well as independent repair shops.
Massachusetts, with its strong consumer protection laws, is considered a test ground for right-to-repair initiatives.
The 2013 ballot question was one of the most heavily lobbied issues on Beacon Hill in recent years, with groups spending millions of dollars campaigning for and against it.
If the attorney general's office certifies the latest question, supporters will still face several hurdles to put it on the 2020 ballot. Among their challenges is gathering signatures of 80,239 registered voters.
On Beacon Hill, lawmakers are considering several bipartisan proposals to update the right to repair law, but the legislation hasn't gained much traction despite widespread support.
"For me, this is about consumers, especially people who live paycheck to paycheck and need their car to get to and from work," said Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, a sponsor of one of the bills. "We need to make sure those people can get their car repaired as cost efficiently as possible. It's a quality of life issue that's critically important."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.