A referendum vote in Massachusetts could point the way for future repairs and updates to your truck.

Massachusetts Ballot Question 1

Manufacturers and independent repair shops and parts suppliers have been fighting over who gets to repair your vehicle for years. In 2012, Mass. voters passed a “Right To Repair” initiative with overwhelming success. Only 14% of voters opted to vote “no” This forms the backdrop for why Massachusetts voters are now being asked again to weigh in on the right to repair issue. Or issues, as it turns out.

The newest fight is one being brought by the folks who work independently of the manufacturers and their dealers. It is your local small or large repair shop, your vehicle service chains, and the other related businesses who want you to take your car anyplace but the dealer for non-warranty work when needed.

Hyundai’s Intersection Movement System

The topic for debate this time around is software and data transfer. Vehicles have been evolving rapidly over the past decade. Led by Tesla, vehicle software updates are now becoming common. These are often done “over-the-air” and can sometimes be sent to the vehicle via its telematics system (think On Star). Often the firmware is updated as well, though typically that is done at a dealer, or in the case of Tesla, by its captive repair and maintenance facilities. Tesla doesn’t have traditional “dealers.”

In addition, vehicles like your modern GM product are now able to do other things such as tell an owner where the vehicle is located. Or if the vehicle’s battery is running low unexpectedly. Or if your tire has a leak. Now that the vehicle itself is sending data to the manufacturer, who then sends it to you, the owner, the vehicle’s data transfer is becoming part of the repair and maintenance chain of events that ultimately leads you to decide where you want to take it to be fixed or maintained; The manufacturer, the dealer, or an independent shop.

What Is Question One About?

What Question 1, as the Right to Repair bill is called, is about is software and data transfer. The proponents of this ballot initiative, who have done the work to place it on ballots, want you to have control over that data. They want you to be able to continue to use your local shop as the technology continues to evolve.

There are not one, but two groups arguing against this. The first are the manufacturers and dealers. They invented the electronic alerts your car will send out in order to bring you back to them and to their dealership. The whole idea is to alert you in advance of trouble and make it simple for you to return to them for help, cash in hand. We understand their position. They have aligned themselves with an argument along the lines of cybersecurity. The idea being that this data and this communication stream can only be managed by them.

However, there is a third group who are arguing this is not a decision to be made on a state ballot initiative. One person on the side of this argument is Bryan Reimer, Ph.D*. He is a Research Scientist at the MIT AgeLab & the Associate Director of the New England University Transportation Center. We at GM-Trucks.com meet with and listen to Bryan speak on vehicle technology once or twice each year via our membership and participation in the New England Motor Press Association (NEMPA). Zane Merva of our team is a Director of the group and your author is a long-standing member. We respect Bryan, and when he speaks, we have learned to listen closely. He is usually “the smartest person in the room,” as the old saying goes. And we mean that as a compliment.

Dr. Reimer argues that this whole subject should be under the purview of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). They are the agency that is responsible for writing Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS). In an opinion story published in Forbes, Dr. Reimer articulates very clearly that approving this initiative and making it a state law is a bad use of the legislature. It is a form of “cheating” to pass it this way. Of course, California’s Air Resources Board does exactly this type of state regulation in creating national emissions policy and has for decades. States also individually determine how manufacturers can sell automobiles, as Tesla found out when it opted to try to sell vehicles direct to the consumer.

GM-Trucks.com had the opportunity to listen to those against the bill, including Dr. Reimer today. The forum was hosted by our own Zane Merva and NEMPA. Having heard the arguments, we cannot disagree that deciding this topic in this fashion is the wrong way to go. NHTSA should be the lead on this, and it should’ve been managed nationally already, not state by state. The Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 of the U.S. Constitution) may even apply to this. This section of the Constitution is intended to protect companies that operate on a national level from protectionist state policies that favor state citizens or businesses at the expense of non-citizens conducting business within that state.

It was clear listening to Dr. Reimer and the opponents of this law that they feel it is a disaster large enough that automakers may consider not providing automobiles to the state of Mass. if this ballot initiative should become law in its current form.

However, that seems far-fetched. To begin with, the Massachusetts legislature has a history of making changes to the ballot questions that voters pass. For example, the recent marijuana decriminalization and recreational use law approved by voters was delayed by the legislature. In fact, the current Right to Repair law on the book in the state now is not what voters opted for in the ballot initiative, but instead, a compromise bill that the legislature adopted following the ballot initiative. At present, a ballot initiative voters passed preventing gas tax indexing is being considered for overturning by the Mass. legislature. To think that the legislators in Mass. would allow a dangerous ballot question that would put every brand-name car dealership in the state out of business to become law seems a bit ridiculous. Particularly given the recent wide-ranging actions taken to protect the public interest during the COVID emergency.

*For more background on Bryan Reimer, check out The Advanced Vehicle Technology Consortium site.

NEMPA members have not yet heard directly from the proponents of the bill.

Image Notes: Top of Page Image by Nissan Media Support. Second image courtesy of Hyundai Media. Third image courtesy of Chevrolet media support. Fourth image by John Goreham Courtesy of Vlad Yevtushenko.