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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Automakers Say They Resolved the Right-to-Repair Fight. Critics Aren’t Ready to Make Peace

Who owns the data generated by your car? And who controls access to it?

For almost a decade, right-to-repair activists, automakers, parts manufacturers, auto repair shop owners, technicians, and regular people who own cars have fought over those questions. How they are answered could radically change the cost and convenience of owning a modern camera-studded and cloud-enabled car—and, some say, the future of the increasingly tech-heavy auto industry.

Last week, a few trade groups announced they had finally figured it all out. In a letter to the US Congress, three industry organizations that together represent the major automakers and thousands of repair shops said they had signed a “memorandum of understanding” on the right to repair. In the agreement, the automakers commit to giving independent car repair shops access to the data, tools, and information necessary to diagnose and repair vehicles—the data, tools, and information provided to the automakers’ own dealership networks. “Competition is alive and well in the auto repair industry,” the letter said.

Right-to-repair advocates—who contend that consumers should be able to fix the products they buy—aren’t so sure. They say the agreement doesn’t give car owners full and unfettered control of the streams of data generated by the latest cars’ cameras and other sensors, which log data on location, speed, acceleration, and how a vehicle’s hardware and software are performing.

The advocates worry the new agreement gives automakers and automaker-associated repairers room to squeeze out smaller, independent shops and at-home tinkerers in the future, making it more difficult for car owners to find places to quickly and affordably fix their cars. And they say there are no enforcement mechanisms to guarantee automakers follow through on their promises.

“In terms of how automakers behave and whether vehicle owners or repair shops will get access to information—I don’t think this will change anything,” says Paul Roberts, the founder of SecuRepairs.org, an organization of IT and cyber professionals advocating for the right to repair.

Notably, the new agreement didn’t include the Auto Care Association, the largest US trade group for independent repair shops and aftermarket parts suppliers. The group's chair, Corey Bartlett, says the agreement doesn’t address some of the major barriers facing consumers looking to get a tech-heavy car repaired.

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Smaller and especially rural repair shops sometimes can’t fix the newest models, because they can’t pay for the expensive tools, subscriptions, and training needed, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. As cars get more complex, and move more services into apps and onto the internet, they fear access will shrink. “We want easy and affordable access to that information for the independent repair shop,” says Bartlett, who is also president and CEO of Automotive Parts Headquarters, which sells aftermarket auto parts to repair shops across the northern and midwestern US.

DIY car repair and auto shops independent of automakers are a long-established tradition in car culture and the auto industry. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the trade group representing most global automakers, says that even today, 70 percent of their own certified networks of collision repair shops aren’t owned by dealers.

Many repair shops, especially those who opt in and pay to be part of those certified networks, say they have no trouble finding the information they need to fix cars, even before this week’s agreement. Michael Bradshaw, vice president of K & M Collision in Hickory, North Carolina, and vice chair of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists, one of the groups that signed the new agreement, says his shop pays to keep up with 30 automaker certification programs, including for Kia, General Motors, Bentley, and Rivian.

In a way, Bradshaw agrees with the right-to-repair advocates: This week’s agreement doesn’t give him anything he didn’t already have. “If there’s data out there, and repair information, we’ve always been able to get that,” Bradshaw says. But he disagrees that it’s a problem that repairers must pay, sometimes dearly, to get the tools, certifications, and information that allow them to fix cars.

Bradshaw thinks it’s reasonable that he must pay for automakers’ certification programs, because developing car technology—and the documentation needed to repair it—costs the carmaker plenty of money. He’s willing to shell out whatever is needed to make a safe and effective repair. “If it was a situation where there was no charge for the access, you’re going to see that the information is going to suffer,” he says, because automakers will have less incentive to devote resources to creating clear information for repairers. “The businesses that have trouble paying for the data that’s needed are the same businesses that are not investing in training or equipment.”

Other repairers worry that without an industry-wide overhaul that forces automakers to standardize and open up their data, car companies will find ways to limit access to repair information, or push customers towards their own dealership networks to boost profits. They say that if auto owners had clear and direct ownership over the data generated by their vehicles—without the involvement of automakers’ specialized tools or systems—they could use it themselves to diagnose and repair a car, or authorize the repair shop of their choice to do the work. “My fear, if no one gives some stronger guidelines, is that I know automakers are going to monetize car data in a way that’s unaffordable for us to gain access,” says Dwayne Myers, co-owner of Dynamic Automotive, an auto repair business with several locations in Maryland.

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“You have to think not only about what the situation is now, but what the situation will be five or 10 years hence,” says Roberts, the right-to-repair advocate. “It’s easier to address this now, in the early days.”

Perhaps by design, the new agreement appeared just ahead of a hearing on right to repair by a US House of Representatives subcommittee on intellectual property and the internet. A bipartisan group of representatives have already introduced bills on the topic.

The hearing follows national wrangling over a Massachusetts law passed by a 2020 ballot measure that gave state car owners firmer control over the data generated by their cars. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation sued the state over the law, preventing lawmakers from enforcing it, and a judge has yet to decide the case. But last month, the Massachusetts attorney general announced she would begin to penalize automakers that withheld data for not complying with the rule. Days later, the US Department of Transportation warned automakers not to comply with the Massachusetts law, citing concerns it would open vehicles to hacking. The letter appeared to contradict the Biden administration’s prior commitments to right-to-repair issues.

Brian Weiss, a spokesperson for the Alliance, declined to comment on the Massachusetts law, citing the ongoing litigation. But how or whether the new agreement will affect other states’ right-to-repair policies is up to policymakers, he says. It commits the trade groups who signed to push for federal rules defining right to repair and against state legislation, which could create a patchwork of laws with different obligations to DIYers or independent repairers. That echoes an agreement signed earlier this year by tractor maker John Deere and a major agricultural trade group, which advocates said failed to give farmers clear access to the tools and software needed to fix their farm equipment.

Myers, the Maryland independent repairer, says that allowing customers to own their car's data today would, first and foremost, “give them the right to choose where they get their car fixed.” But he also has his eye on the future. “Down the road, we will find out what automakers are collecting,” he says—and why. He’d rather establish car owners’ right to control that information now, before they discover too late that it’s being used in ways they don’t like.

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