Massachusetts voters pass a right-to-repair measure, giving them unprecedented access to their car data

A ballot measure passed by 75% of voters in Massachusetts has resolved a thorny question that could have widespread implications for the automotive industry: once a person buys a vehicle, they own all of its data.

The measure, listed on the ballot as Question 1, amends and broadens a law that gives consumers in Massachusetts the right to repair the vehicles they own. The measure will require automakers that sell vehicles with telematics systems in Massachusetts to equip them with a standardized open data platform beginning with model year 2022. This standardized open data platform has to give vehicle owners and independent repair facilities direct access and the ability to retrieve mechanical data and run diagnostics through a mobile-based application.

Importantly, this measure covers the data that telematics systems collect and wirelessly transmit. And it not only gives access to the mechanical data, it allows owners and independent mechanics to send commands to the vehicle for repair, maintenance and diagnostic testing.

Massachusetts has a record of leading the right-to-repair charge. In 2012, voters approved a law that required automakers to use a nonproprietary standard for its onboard diagnostics port — that physical port used by dealerships to retrieve data. The result meant that car owners no longer had to go to a dealership if their check engine light went on and instead could head over to their local mechanic for a diagnosis. The law exempted wirelessly transmitted data. That exemption has become more pressing for right-to-repair advocates as telematics systems in modern vehicles have become more advanced.

The measure passed Tuesday has been heralded by consumer protection advocates and bitterly opposed by automakers, as well as some data security proponents. “This is a major step forward,” Kyle Wiens, the founder of California-based iFixit said in an email to TechCrunch. “If you can’t fix it, you don’t really own it. As manufacturers add more and more technology to vehicles, they need to take care to protect owner’s right to tinker and local mechanic’s ability to perform repairs.”

It’s also seen as a potentially lucrative opportunity.

“This has big potential of creating a huge ecosystem of apps here like we have on our phones,” Gartner analyst Mike Ramsey said in a recent interview. For instance, it might allow companies with large fleets to better monitor and manage their vehicles.

Industry lobbying group Alliance for Automotive Innovation has argued that it will create security and safety risks. Critics of the ballot measure, which include the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, has also argued that it is far too expansive. “A less intrusive version of Question 1 failed in California because it was considered unnecessary and risky,” Conor Yunits, a spokesperson with the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data noted in an email sent to TechCrunch. 

“The car companies do have legitimate concerns, which are, ‘hey, if you put new software in the vehicle and it screws up the vehicle, that’s a safety issue,” Ramsey said.

The most recent statement from Alliance for Automotive Innovation’s president and CEO John Bozzella suggests that the organization will seek some way to lessen that risk. What’s unclear is if the organization will actively fight to narrow the scope of the measure. 

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is among the many stakeholders that have highlighted tremendous concerns with the language in Question One, which presents real risks to the security of our customers’ vehicles. These concerns remain,” Bozzella said in a statement. “Automakers have made available all the diagnostic and repair information that is needed to service a vehicle safely and securely. That consumer choice will not change. Moving forward, automakers will continue their work to protect our customers and prioritize their safety, privacy, and vehicle security.”

While this ballot measure is restricted to Massachusetts, there is precedent that it will expand to the rest of the country. The initial Right to Repair law went into effect in Massachusetts in 2013. By 2014, the industry agreed in a memorandum of understanding to expand that bill and cover the rest of the country. Tesla was the only automaker that didn’t sign the MOU, Wiens noted.

“It is very possible the same will happen again here,” Wiens said, adding that “no one wants a patchwork of different laws.”

“It’s now time to expand ‘Right to Repair’ from automobiles to cover the rest of the technology, from smartphones to farm equipment,” Wiens said, adding that Massachusetts and a number of other U.S. states are poised to consider broad electronics Right to Repair legislation in 2021.