Massachusetts Right to Repair Battle Gears Up

There is a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal that offers solutions to readers' automobile problems, the latest one concerning a 2008 Cadillac owner whose car trunk kept opening by itself. The owner had brought it to three dealers. None could find a solution. Apparently, there is a “remote control door lock receiver” that needs recalibration to keep this from happening again. As the column noted, “That is right—opening the trunk used to be a mechanical operation but now is an electronic one on many vehicles.”

If the owner happened to be in Massachusetts, some of his dealer frustration might be addressed by its proposed  “Right to Repair” bill—assuming the on-going and ever increasingly nasty fight over it can be resolved.

The R2R bill states that beginning in 2016 and starting with model year 2002, “a manufacturer of motor vehicles sold in the commonwealth shall make available for purchase by owners of motor vehicles manufactured by such manufacturer and by independent repair facilities the same diagnostic and repair documentation, including repair technical updates, that such manufacturer makes available to its dealers through the manufacturer's Internet-based diagnostic and repair information system or other electronically accessible manufacturer’s repair information system.”

According to proponents of the bill, independent repair shops and owners cannot get access to the information needed to repair cars at an affordable cost, or sometimes at all. As a result, car owners are often forced to bring their cars to a dealer for repairs that are frequently far more expensive than at an independent repair shop. Independent repair shops feel they are losing revenue as a result.

Car manufacturers and supporters say these claims are bogus (pdf), and oppose the bill claiming that all it would do is jack up their costs, which would be passed on to customers in higher car prices. (Manufacturers also claim that R2R represents a threat to their intellectual property.) Dealers see R2R as cutting into an increasingly important revenue stream from car repairs.

As expected, the R2R advocates say the manufacturers’ and dealers’ claims are myths and vice versa.

A good article on the advantages and disadvantages of going to a dealer versus a local garage at the car buying guide company Edmunds.com notes various ways the manufacturers give their dealers an edge: “Dealers get manufacturers' assistance with start-up costs and equipment. They get first dibs on any of the manufacturers' newly developed service tools, specifications and, as noted above, recall and service bulletins. That way, the manufacturer keeps the latest information on new cars and the hardware to best service them ‘in-house,’ at least for awhile.”

The fight over R2R has been going on for several years, as I have noted in my posts covering both sides of the issue. In May, the Massachusetts Senate once again passed a R2R bill, but the Massachusetts House still has not (it has until the end of July).

There's further hope, though, for proponents. Whereas previous R2R efforts have died in the Massachusetts legislature, there has been a successful campaign to place R2R as a ballot initiative (and subsequent law) for the election in November.  For the initiative to pass, “a majority of the voters who respond to the question must affirm it. Additionally, that majority must constitute at least 30 percent of the total voter turnout.” Over 126 000 Massachusetts residents signed the petition to get R2R on the ballot, and AAA Southern New England indicates that 88 percent of its members in a recent poll support a right to repair.

There is a lot of out of state money flowing in from organizations both supporting and opposing the bill, replete with claims of dirty campaign tricks. The worry—or the hope—is that if R2R passes in Massachusetts, it will spur the final passage of R2R legislation in other states such as New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, the Wall Street Journal reports.  It may even reinvigorate a proposed national R2R bill that has gone nowhere.

Whatever the outcome of the Massachusetts R2R ballot initiative, the issues underlying the R2R debate won’t be going away anytime soon. As I have noted elsewhere, the use of electronics in automotive vehicles has been increasing rapidly, with some predicting that 60 percent of the world’s cars will have Internet and smart phone connections within five years.  

Up to 40 percent of a cost of a premium car being attributed to electronics (pdf) as well. According to the marketing research company IC Insights, the automotive integrated circuit market will be around $19.6 billion this year (with an expected annual growth of about 11 percent). IC Insights also predicts that there will be $495 worth of IC’s per vehicle by 2015. For those interested, Symphony Teleca Corporation has created a nice overview and “poster” (pdf) depicting likely future developments of electronics in cars.

I’ll let you know in a future post on whether the Massachusetts Right to Repair ballot initiative becomes law.

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