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Massachusetts Is Back with More "Right to Repair" Nonsense

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Tags Bureaucracy and Regulation


Momentum behind the right-to-repair movement with its call to force manufacturers to make repair information open and accessible to consumers and independent repair shops has built up over the past decade. Right-to-repair laws have already passed in a number of states, always underlaid by the claim that manufacturers in every industry from automobiles to smartphones seek to hide and obfuscate product repair data. Without these laws, their advocates claim, consumers would always have to go to the manufacturer to have their product fixed, because independent repairmen—although more local and affordable—would be barred from accessing the information necessary to make repairs.

After more than a decade of pushing for change, the right-to-repair camp made its first legislative splash eight years ago in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In Massachusetts, citizens can propose new statutes themselves through direct democratic ballot initiatives, which are sent to the General Court if the vote succeeds. In 2012, voters in the commonwealth were confronted with a right-to-repair initiative which proposed that all automobile manufacturers be required to provide owners the same access to vehicle repair data as the manufacturer’s dealers and affiliated repair shops have. Unfazed by attempts to dilute public support, voters rallied behind the right-to-repair banner, and it passed with 86 percent of the electorate's support—the widest margin of any ballot measure in the history of the commonwealth.

These days, activists worry that automakers may begin using vehicles’ increasing computerization as a loophole to restrict access to repair information. On November 3, Massachusetts voters will be given the opportunity to approve or reject an updated right-to-repair initiative—known informally as “Question 1”—which builds on this worry. If passed, it would “require manufacturers of motor vehicles sold in Massachusetts to equip any such vehicles that use telematics systems—systems that collect and wirelessly transmit mechanical data to a remote server—with a standardized open access data platform” by model year 2022. Through a mobile app, independent repairers “would be able to retrieve mechanical data from, and send commands to, the vehicle for repair, maintenance, and diagnostic testing” with the authorization of the vehicle’s owner. The idea is that with access to the same mechanical data, local garages would be able to compete with manufacturers on an equal footing to make vehicle repairs. The reality behind Question 1, however, is much less straightforward and carries the promise of almost certain disaster.

Accessing Repair Data Is a Nonissue

To the average voter, it’s unclear what’s even going on with repair. Are automakers actually restricting access to information or has the “problem” been created out of whole cloth? “As far as we know,” cybersecurity expert Paul Roberts explained, “the data that is being shared wirelessly via the auto service shops with the Cloud is the same data that repair people can get via the port under the dashboard.” Mandating that new vehicles be equipped with wirelessly accessible data platforms would do absolutely nothing to expand consumer choice or protect independent shops. Automakers have not in any way tampered with consumers’ ability to patronize their local shops, and little evidence has been proffered to suggest that they will. The problem simply does not and will never exist. After all, if one brand—say, Honda—were to ever restrict accessibility to vehicle data, consumers would be drawn to other brands—Ford, Nissan, and Toyota. Cartelization could never arise in the auto market, as manufacturers are in constant competition with one another, working to produce vehicles that best satisfy consumers’ wants and needs. To restrict access to repair data would thus be financial suicide.

Massachusetts Right to Repair coalition leader Tommy Hickey even recently admitted that if Question 1 doesn’t pass, vehicle repair information would still be accessible through the OBD (on-board diagnostics) port. The only difference would be that manufacturers would receive vehicle data wirelessly and in real time, whereas independent repairmen could only access it through the OBD port in the shop later on. This wouldn’t give manufacturers any competitive advantage, and—like the data collected by companies in all industries—the mechanical info sent back to them wirelessly will only be used to help make product improvements, not to establish a repair monopoly. When right to repairers fear monger about the nonexistent “monopoly on vehicle repair,” they expose their distrust and distaste for the market process.

Pulling “Rights” out of Thin Air

In its ad campaigns, Right to Repair often uses the slogan: “It’s your car, you should decide where to fix it.” In one sense, that’s very true—a car is the property of its owner and, ipso facto, the owner has total rein to use it however he wants, including the freedom to decide where and when to repair it. Consumers do not, however, have the right to enforce their own demands on manufacturers about the software and interfaces manufacturers install in their vehicles; they have no just claim to decide the manufacturer’s use of its own property in the production process. That’s why the “right to repair” is nowhere to be seen in classical natural law theory, the Constitution, or even contemporary deontological scholarship—the “right” simply doesn’t exist. Like the “right to free housing” and “right to universal healthcare,” it’s a made-up “right,” invented ex nihilo as a matter of political convenience.

It’s little surprise, then, that far-left social democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have become very vocal proponents of the right to repair. In reality, contra Sanders and Warren, rights do not and cannot arise from government fiat; they must come from an absolute, universal origin—the commands of God, perhaps, or the fundamental axioms of human reason. Descending from the arbitrary authority of state decree, the right to repair must be considered the enemy of private enterprise, not its guarantor.

Economic Damage

Any law imposing rigid regulations on manufacturers will inevitably lead to economic harms in the production process, and right to repair is no exception. Just consider the 2012 initiative: to meet its requirements, manufacturers were forced to make expensive changes to vehicle interface firmware. These added costs substantially weighed down the automobile industry, preventing companies from investing as much in new models, technologies, and safety designs as they otherwise might have. Anticipating that other states would have soon followed with their own right-to-repair legislation, the auto industry feared the rise of “[a] patchwork of fifty differing state bills, each with its own interpretations and compliance parameters.” Rather than wander into a future so convoluted, automakers decided to appease the right-to-repair crowd by adopting the new firmware across the entire country. That means that Massachusetts voters did what the US Congress ultimately couldn’t: impose a single, unified right-to-repair standard nationwide.

The 2020 initiative would only serve to foist additional burdens on automakers, topping off those from eight years ago. The fact that it was put on the ballot at all has made industry giants devote nearly $20 million to defeating it, and if the law passes, the industry will be in much worse shape. In each vehicle, automakers would be required to install a data interface device with the ability to communicate remotely with computers and smartphones as well as send commands between different parts of the vehicle. The cost of developing this software and adding it to new models would sack the automakers with a further cut in revenue. When firms are forced to redirect funds away from value productive ventures, consumers suffer just as much as the industry itself. Since the requirements would only be imposed in Massachusetts, automakers would face additional challenges implementing them. Will they feel compelled to adopt the standard nationally, like in 2012? It certainly wouldn’t be out of the question.

Moreover, Question 1 would also serve as an implicit subsidy to aftermarket parts corporations—like O’Reilly Auto Parts, AutoZone, and Advance Auto Parts—who happen to be among the highest-spending donors to the “Yes on 1” campaign. As repair shop consultant Rusty Savignac explained in a recent op-ed, “These national retail chains want access to your car’s display panel and real-time vehicle location. They want to be able to send advertising directly into your car, to show you more ads and sell you parts and services.” If passed, the initiative would facilitate a huge grant of economic privilege to aftermarket parts companies, who would be given undue access to valuable vehicle information free of charge. Small-town repairmen with little commercial presence wouldn’t get to take part in that easy lucre; in fact, this would make it easier for larger repair companies to outcompete the little guy. Question 1 has nothing to do with protecting independent garages and everything to do with propping up billion-dollar aftermarket parts corporations.

Cybersecurity Risks

As vehicles become increasingly computerized into the future, breaches of automobile data are bound to become more prevalent. Between 2016 and 2019, car hacking increased by an average of 94 percent year over year, up to around 150 incidents last year—83 percent of which occurred completely wirelessly. With those figures poised to rise further, automakers have been paying special attention and spending billions of dollars to help keep vehicle interface firmware safe and secure for the past few years. Indeed, cybersecurity is one of the most pressing issues the auto industry is devoting its resources to right now.

If Question 1 passes, it may become impossible for automakers to adhere to proper cybersecurity standards. Between the 2020 general election and the beginning of model year 2022, automakers would only have nine months to develop the new firmware. As it stands now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that it “is not aware of any existing system architectures that would satisfy the requirements of the ballot initiative” and that a secure data interface is “unlikely to be developed, tested, validated and deployed in the proposed timeframe.” Auto companies may then “find themselves in a situation that would require them to remove all access controls from their telematics systems, including controls designed to ensure the security of safety-critical systems.” That would make it inordinately easier for malicious actors to hack into vehicle data systems. Domestic violence prevention groups have even warned that Question 1 would deanonymize vehicle data, leaving info like GPS location wirelessly accessible and largely unprotected.

Furthermore, Question 1 requires that all intravehicular components be integrated through a common network so that commands can be sent to them and between them. This blatantly violates established best practices for auto cybersecurity, which strongly recommend that vehicles’ networks and processors be as isolated as possible to inhibit potential hackers. The NHTSA has warned that as a result the proposed law would make it much easier for cyberterrorists to seize control of sensitive vehicle systems—including acceleration, braking, and steering—and operate them remotely. If they gained unauthorized access to even a single repair shop’s telematics interface—which can issue commands to customers’ vehicles in real time—untold levels of damage could be wreaked. This threat may seem far fetched, but it’s one of the very real possibilities that come with ignoring cybersecurity in a computerized world. White-hat hackers have been showing for years how remote carjacking works, and in a world where extremists are weaponizing vehicles more than ever before, it’s not a concern to simply brush aside.

Indeed, nothing about Question 1’s prospects should be taken lightly. If passed, it poses a significant threat to property rights, free markets, and digital safety—hurting everyone besides its corporate sponsors. Voters, though, have been provided little information to inform their decision and the right-to-repair coalition has spent millions of dollars pushing a confusing, alarmist ad campaign. With luck, however, voters may discover the smoke-and-mirrors show in front of them and help shoot the question down on Election Day, saving the commonwealth (and possibly the country) from another destructive round of right-to-repair nonsense.


James Ketler

James Ketler is a high school student living in Massachusetts with his brother, sister, and parents. He became interested in libertarianism in 2015 after hearing about Rand Paul's presidential campaign and followed the rabbit hole straight down to Mises and Rothbard. When he's able to find the time, James loves to study and write about liberty, ethics, history, and economics.

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