Tips, Tricks & Trends

You Need To Care About the Ongoing ‘Right To Repair’ Fight

Some car repair tasks, like recall work, are best performed by professionals. But many maintenance tasks, even something like a timing belt or clutch replacement, can be performed by a home mechanic. However, as cars gain more electronics and sensor-reliant safety features, repair costs go up, and the work becomes increasingly specialized. In fact, Chevrolet forbids C8 Corvette owners from going to ‘out-of-network’ mechanics. But it’s not just the average car owner’s ability to make repairs that’s being threatened. It’s the ‘right to repair’ itself.

What smartphones, John Deere tractors, and your car have to do with ‘right to repair’

‘Right to repair’ is a somewhat nebulous term, Autoweek reports. But broadly speaking, it’s the ability for a consumer to modify and repair their personal devices, including cars and electronics. And that includes deciding who does the repair work—the official manufacturer’s agent or a cheaper 3rd-party.

That’s relatively straightforward if it’s a purely mechanical issue, say, a cracked brake rotor. Just order the part, install it, and the job’s done. But modern cars depend increasingly more on software. And like any smartphone or electronic device, verifying that a repair’s been completed properly requires access to manufacturer-specific tools, software, and data, Gizmodo explains. Otherwise, consumers can’t use their ‘right to repair’ as effectively to compare costs. But not every company wants to play ball.

A master mechanic and service technician repair a John Deere tractor in a garage
A master mechanic (right) and service technician repair a John Deere tractor | Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Take, for example, what’s been going on with John Deere’s tractors in the ‘right to repair’ discourse. Farmers need tractor repairs done promptly, Road & Track reports, because they’re chasing the weather. The problem is that modern John Deere tractors run on proprietary software—which the company doesn’t want to share with 3rd-parties. So, if the tractor breaks, it sits there until a John Deere rep comes down to fix it.

One solution would be to buy a new tractor. But a decent one can cost as much as some houses, The Drive reports. As a result, farmers are abandoning the latest John Deeres for purely-mechanical vintage models because they’re easier to repair. Or straight-up hacking their tractors.

And it’s not Apple customers or farmers that struggle with ‘right to repair’ issues, Jalopnik reports. American military service members also have to wait on manufacturer reps for repairs, rather than the on-base mechanics. So do hospitals and medical centers, Above the Law reports, which is especially problematic given the current COVID-19 pandemic.

But why is all of this necessary?

What is the real issue?

Apple and John Deere publicly claim concern over consumer safety, R&T reports, potentially from improper repairs. Which, to be fair, is a valid concern. Wrenching on a car can be risky even if your jack stands don’t fail. And lack of care around a disassembled electronic could lead to electrocution or worse.

However, there’s a risk of injury in attempting any repair. Plus, there will always be some repairs that are outside of a home mechanic’s comfortable skill range. At which point, they’ll take the car or device to a mechanic or technician of their choosing, which is part of the ‘right to repair.’ So, opposition to it in the name of safety isn’t as logically-sound as it may appear.

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In any case, there are two additional issues at play concerning ‘right to repair.’ The first is revenue, CBS News reports. By forcing owners to only go to manufacturer-approved repair services, it means more money for the manufacturer. And if customers have no choice but to go directly to the manufacturer for repairs, it means the products’ service lives can be shortened.

The second issue is data, The Drive reports. ‘Right to repair’ requires that anyone can access the necessary tools and information needed to fix something. Which includes the ability to log in and access a car’s or tractor’s software. And today, the diagnostic data your car collects includes ADAS sensor readouts and partial-autonomy telematics. All of which is incredibly valuable from a safety development and fiscal perspective.

The ‘right to repair’ battle is still being waged in the courts

This isn’t the first time ‘right to repair’ has come up as a hot discussion topic or legal issue. It arguably dates back to the 1980s, when the now-standard OBDII diagnostic port was being finalized, Autoweek reports.

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Automakers wanted it to be a fully-closed, manufacturer-specific system, but enough legal pressure meant it became an open standard. And that’s anyone can buy an OBDII scanner that can be used at home, Jalopnik explains. Without ‘right to repair,’ you’d have to visit a dealership for every warning and check engine light.

Back in 2013, Massachusetts was the first state to enact an actual ‘right to repair’ law, Boston Globe reports. It explicitly required that automakers give independent shops the codes necessary to complete maintenance and repair work. And a year later, it became a national standard, Automotive News reports.

However, it was never officially enshrined in law. And this year, as Massachusetts seeks to expand its ‘right to repair’ to telematics data, manufacturers are pushing back. Over-the-air updates are becoming increasingly common—Tesla famously uses it, and marques like Land Rover, Jaguar, and BMW are increasingly using it. And the new law would require the manufacturers to share the wirelessly-transmitted data to independent repair shops, WBUR reports.

Because this involves wireless data transfer, automakers are nervous about security and piracy, AN reports. And there are some arguably justifiable risks associated with sharing vehicle data. However, proponents of the new law point out that the data in question isn’t personal information, just diagnostic information. And it’s not like modern cars haven’t been hacked wirelessly previously.

How could this impact you?

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This new ‘right to repair’ initiative appears on Massachusetts ballots as ‘Question 1’ in the November 2020 election. If it passes, the regulation would come into place in 2022, a timeline that some industry representatives are calling somewhat rushed, Autoweek reports. Plus, it might not spread to the rest of the country. And compared to California, Massachusetts doesn’t have as much legal pull when it comes to cars.

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If it doesn’t pass, it won’t change the existing OBDII system. You and your local repair shop will still be able to use scanners to diagnose some issues. But not every single issue. For anything more complicated, you’ll have to go to a dealer or automaker-approved shop.

And it’s worth pointing out that the ‘right to repair’ bill requires owner authorization before the manufacturer sends the shop any data. In that sense, it’s an expansion of owner control over how the data is used. Similar questions are often raised about the data Facebook, Amazon, Google, and other tech companies collect, Autoweek points out.

The question is, what’s the price of choice and convenience to you?

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