‘Right to Repair’ initiative progresses as automakers push back


Proponents argue more car data should be given to consumers, but industry reps say they already provide all necessary tools to make repairs.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Kurt Hamel believes it’s becoming harder to do his job.

The district manager of VIP Tires & Service walked to a Lincoln SUV at the company’s Scarborough workshop and plugged in a diagnostic computer. Moments later, he pointed to the screen. 

The information he wanted about the temperature of the car’s catalytic converter instead read, “Not supported.” Without that information, Hamel said he couldn’t tell if the part was overheating, thus causing the car’s check-engine light to come on. He was operating with blind spots.

“Think about it as you’ve got a map with an X on it, right? There’s a process for you to get to that X,” Hamel explained. “So, that’s what you’re getting; you’re getting a map with an X on it and without the information to be able to get to that X.”

Hamel argued that while car manufacturers are producing more and more advanced models with thousands of data points in their computer systems, the companies restrict access to some of that data.

VIP Tires & Service CEO Tim Winkeler agrees and is backing a new Maine ballot initiative known as “Right to Repair,” which the Secretary of State’s office cleared this week to go out for signatures. If they get 10 percent of this year’s voters in Maine to sign the initiative, it’ll be on the 2023 ballot.

The heart of the measure would require car manufacturers to standardize on-board diagnostic systems and make them accessible to local technicians and car owners alike, instead of holding onto so-called telematic data that is transmitted directly to manufacturers. 

Telematic data often includes GPS positioning, speed, temperature, and performance information — data that are not displayed during a regular vehicle diagnostic. Instead, on many new vehicles, telematic data is transmitted directly to the manufacturer. Winkeler wants it all at a car owner’s fingertips.

“It’s your car; it’s your data,” Winkeler said. “If you want that data to go back to the car manufacturer, great. But if you want that data to be accessible by an independent repair shop, then that should be your choice because you own the car; you should own the data.”

It has national support as well, including from the Auto Care Association, which represents major car parts chains, including VIP’s parent company O’Reilly Auto Parts, as well as small shops around the country. 

Auto Care Association CEO Bill Hanvey promised sensitive security data would be excluded from the measure, and its text reads that it “provides exclusions for information otherwise required to be shared with owners or independent repair shops if that information is necessary for immobilizer systems or security-related modules.”

“It’s simply an initiative to either allow the consumer to be able to grant permission to their local shop to access that data securely or for the consumer themselves to be able to access that data if they’re a do-it-yourselfer,” Hanvey said.

Massachusetts is the only state that has passed a “Right to Repair” initiative. The measure is currently held up in court.

Using similar language, Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, introduced the REPAIR Act into the House of Representatives on Feb. 2. It is awaiting action.

Car manufacturers are pushing back against the measure and the proponents’ claims. 

Wayne Weikel and the Alliance for Automotive Innovation represent the household companies that make 98 percent of cars sold in the U.S. Not only do automakers provide all the data and resources needed to repair their vehicles, Weikel argued, but AAI joined auto repair and parts organizations in a 2014 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). 

In it, AAI’s companies agreed to supply data and necessary resources to anyone who wants to repair their vehicle. That data is often offered after a daily, monthly, or annual subscription is paid. Maine’s “Right to Repair” authors support that model and wrote it into the initiative.

On the MOU, Weikel said it is not only held as a standard in the auto industry but in the realm of U.S. trade at large.

“Automakers are the gold standard when it comes to providing consumers with repair options,” he said. “You can take it back to the dealership; you can take your car to an independent repair shop; and, for those technically inclined, you can fix the car yourself. And the only reason that is possible is because automakers make available all the tools, parts, and information necessary to fix a vehicle today.” 

But telematic data is a step too far for AAI. Despite the initiative’s language excluding safety data that could be compromised, AAI remained concerned about potential security and safety issues.

There’s a long road ahead for the potential ballot question, and both sides are digging in for a fight over Maine’s voters in the coming year.

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