In 2012 when proponents were negotiating what became the landmark 2013 Massachusetts automotive right to repair legislation, today’s leading producer of electric vehicles, Tesla, sold just over 3,000 cars. This year, estimates suggest that Tesla may deliver over 500,000 vehicles. Potentially accelerating the shift to advanced technology vehicles further, California announced last month an effort to phase out the sale of new gas-powered passenger vehicles by 2035. How does any of this relate to the 2020 Massachusetts Question 1 ballot initiative looking to augment right to repair?
Over the past several decades, vehicles have moved from being primarily mechanical systems, with thousands of moving parts, to systems that draw together fewer mechanical pieces with a broad array of electronic componentry and networks linked by computer software embedded with artificial intelligence. Electric vehicles have dramatically fewer moving parts, potentially accelerating a tipping point towards a largely smart consumer electric device on wheels. The promise of connected, automated electric mobility will further amplify the trends towards higher technology cars in the decades to come. Software, unlike hardware, is increasingly updated through wireless networks and manufacturer provided vehicle service to enhance performance and functionality throughout the vehicle’s lifecycle. As Tesla is demonstrating, cars of all types might actually improve as they age.
In this context, Massachusetts Question 1 is a referendum on how traditional independent automotive repair shops and aftermarket part suppliers are going to function as part of tomorrow’s automotive ecosystem. The ballot initiative aims to enact a law that opens connectivity to any vehicle-specific data “for the purposes of maintaining, diagnosing and repairing the motor vehicle.” The law would require that “access shall include the ability to send commands to in-vehicle components if needed for purposes of maintenance, diagnostics and repair.”
While a narrow interpretation might consider repair and maintenance to only relate to physical components, a more realistic perspective also considers the maintenance and repair and updating of vehicle software. Therefore, one has to ask – should anyone beyond the vehicle manufacturer be responsible for the maintenance or repair of a vehicle’s software? Should consumers be free to authorize an independent repair facility to augment, update or otherwise change a vehicle’s software without safety and cybersecurity oversight embodied in manufacturer processes? If so, where do the bounds of liability to the original equipment manufacturer or independent repair shop fall? Given that new cars actually contain dozens of connected computers that need to seamlessly interact to meet safety and environmental standards – there is no easy answer.
To be clear, it’s not necessarily practical or optimal for the consumer to have to return to a manufacturer-supported dealership for all repair and maintenance necessities Aftermarket options for glass, tires, fluids, and other componentry are critical to the supply chain. But perhaps it is time to ask, where should a manufacturer’s responsibility extend over the lifetime of the vehicle when it comes to evolving software systems? Where can independent repair play a supportive role? The current ballot question seems to leave these key questions, as well as others around cyber security, unanswered.
A vision for the future of vehicle warranty and repair is needed. This is not a simple topic and one that state legislatures are not traditionally equipped to address. As such, I would argue it is a topic for federal leadership. Why you might ask? Quite simply, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is responsible for writing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) which specify design, performance, and other related requirements for motor vehicle safety.
Federal leadership is needed to ensure that the 50 states are not moving in 50 different directions and that vehicles on our roads, and their on-board systems and connected data, are safe and secure. Aligned with its oversight responsibility, NHTSA has offered testimony on concerns over safety-related cybersecurity risks of the measures called for in the Massachusetts ballot initiative. The testimony notes that the “terms of the ballot initiative would prohibit manufacturers from complying with both existing Federal guidance and cybersecurity hygiene best practices.”
With the bulk of the funding advocating for and against Massachusetts Question 1 coming from out of state, one has to remember that the proponents picked the Commonwealth’s traditionally sympathetic right to repair voters to avoid a national litmus test. When voters make their decision around this seemingly simple ballot question, they need to understand that they are helping proponents avoid a needed national discussion around the foundations and evolving complexities of vehicle repair.
A vote for Question 1 tries to double down on what arguably was a historically consumer friendly move, without taking the time for a critical dialog around the future of repair in an evolving connected, automated, electric mobility system. Perhaps it is time for Massachusetts Voters to resist what is for many a well-intended impulse, vote no on Question 1, and keep the door open for an serious and open debate on what actually is the most efficient, safe, and secure role for manufacturers and independent repair to coexist in a rapidly changing automotive landscape.