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What is 'right to repair,' and why are Maine voters being asked to weigh in on it?

Brian Hohmann, mechanic and owner of Accurate Automotive, in Burlington, Mass., uses a tire changing machine at his shop, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, in Burlington. Hohmann said most independent shops are perfectly capable of competing with dealerships on both repair skills and price as long as they have the information and software access they need.
Steven Senne
AP file
Brian Hohmann, mechanic and owner of Accurate Automotive, in Burlington, Mass., uses a tire changing machine at his shop, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, in Burlington. Hohmann said most independent shops are perfectly capable of competing with dealerships on both repair skills and price as long as they have the information and software access they need.

Question 4 asks Maine voters: “Do you want to require vehicle manufacturers to standardize on-board diagnostic systems and provide remote access to those systems and mechanical data to owners and independent repair facilities?”

Maine would become the second state in the nation to require automakers to make onboard repair and diagnostic information available to independent mechanics if voters approve Question 4 in November.

The concept is relatively straightforward and the legislation closely mirrors a law in Massachusetts that 75% of voters approved in 2020. However, implementation of the Bay State law is mired in a legal battle pitting auto manufacturers against consumers and repair shops. Meanwhile, the federal government is sending mixed signals about whether it’s safe to share a car’s telematics data, which increasingly includes information about people’s driving behavior in addition to vehicle repair diagnostics.

The Maine initiative is part of a burgeoning right-to-repair movement in the U.S. that hinges on the idea that consumers should have the ability to fix the products that they purchase, or at least have a choice in who does the repair for them.

At least 25 states have considered right-to-repair legislation in recent years, but the proposals are not always specific to cars. Colorado enacted a law this year centering on the repair offarming equipment. New York recently enacted a right-to-repair law forelectronic devices such as smartphones, tablets or laptop computers. Minnesotapassed a law similar to New York’s, and Maine may do the same next year if lawmakers enactan electronics proposal introduced in April.

What does Question 4 do?

The initiative requires automakers to make repair diagnostic data available to third-party mechanics so that they can pinpoint and fix vehicle problems.

@mainepublic Right to repair is on Maine’s ballot this November. Here’s what you need to know about Question 4. 🗓️ Election day is Nov. 7! #mepolitics #election2023 #righttorepair #autorepair #carrepair #cars #maine #mainenews #question4 ♬ original sound - Maine Public

It was brought forward by a coalition of repair shops that argue that manufacturers make it difficult to repair cars, either by not including a physical port for independent mechanics to plug into to pinpoint problems, or by not sharing the wireless telematics data cars collect.

The first iteration of Massachusetts’ landmark right-to-repair law initially appeared to resolve the issue of including a port that independent repair shops can use to access diagnostics. That law passed in 2012 and automakers largely went along with it by agreeing to free up access to tools and software that would allow third-party shops, or the car owner, to perform maintenance.

But since then, automakers have leaned more heavily into the use of wireless telematics that are transmitted into dealer service shops and don’t require a physical port for access.

Wireless telematics can track everything from car speed to driver braking tendencies, but also car diagnostic systems. The increased use of wireless telematics — and independent repair shops’ inability to access it — inspired the 2020 update to Massachusetts’ right-to-repair law.

It was advanced by the same coalition behind Question 4 in Maine. It argues that carmakers aren’t sharing the data because they want to direct customers into their own service departments. According to the National Automobile Dealers Association,more than 50% of dealership profits come from service departments.

"It's about getting the consumers the ability to work on their own vehicles if they so choose down the road, and to allow independent repairers like those of us to continue to work on those vehicles," Tim Winkeler, president of VIP Tires and Service in Maine and one the leading petitionerssaid earlier this year. "As technology progresses that's being threatened.”

Automakers: Unsafe to share access to telematics

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade association representing global auto manufacturers, has led the effort to defeat Massachusetts’ automotive right-to-repair law.

The organization reluctantly complied with the first iteration of the law, but it has since challenged the 2020 update in court by arguing that sharing telematic data could compromise vehicle safety, expose vehicles to nefarious hackers and give away manufacturers’ proprietary information.

Opponents of right-to-repair legislation for electronic goods have made similar arguments. Right-to-repair advocates frame safety claims as a scare tactic designed to force customers into repairs performed by dealer service departments.

The legal dispute is unresolved, but it has effectively halted implementation of the Massachusetts law.

The federal government, meanwhile, has offered divergent perspectives on the matter.

In 2021, President Joe Bidensigned an executive order backing the concept of right-to-repair. It encouraged the Federal Trade Commission to “issue rules against anti-competitive restrictions on using independent repair shops or doing DIY repairs of your own devices and equipment.”

Later, the FTC appeared to throw cold water on manufacturers’ argument thatsafety is a valid reason to restrict repair access in a report stating that “there is scant evidence to support manufacturers’ justifications for repair restrictions.”

But in June, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which oversees domestic vehicle safety rules,told automakers not to comply with the Massachusetts right-to-repair law. NHTSA warned that allowing customers and independent repair shops to access a vehicle’s telematics data could result in the information becoming available to hackers, who might use it to take over and access a vehicle’s systems. There have been reports of increased cyberattacks on cars with smartphonelike features and auto manufacturers are increasingly using third-party vendors for various systems. While some hacks may be by car owners attempting to unlock features such asheated seats, there has also been a reported uptick innefarious cyberattacks.

NHTSA letter to manufacturers was criticized by Massachusetts’ congressional delegation, but the issue is still unresolved.

If Question 4 passes, will it be challenged in court?

Possibly, if not likely.

Maine would become just the second state to adopt an automotive right-to-repair law. And since the proposal is modeled after the Massachusetts law, it stands a good chance of facing a similar legal challenge by the automakers alliance.

At the same time, the right-to-repair movement appears to be picking up political steam. That might affect how the legal process plays out, especially if Congress adopts a federal right-to-repair law. There were several proposals introduced this year.

Maine's Political Pulse was written this week by chief political correspondent Steve Mistler and produced by digital editor Andrew Catalina. Read past editions or listen to the Political Pulse podcast at mainepublic.org/pulse.

Journalist Steve Mistler is Maine Public’s chief politics and government correspondent. He is based at the State House.