There was a time when any mechanic or driveway hobbyist with a well-stocked toolbox and the right know-how could fix any make of car. In Massachusetts, a ballot initiative may soon make that the case again, with one key difference - mechanics will need to add a software subscription to that toolbox.
The ballot initiative is called “right to repair.” As cars’ guts have become less mechanical and more digital, diagnostic software and scanning tools are increasingly necessary for even basic repairs. Carmakers, however, have been reluctant to make these tools widely available, instead reserving full information and software for their franchised dealers. The Massachusetts initiative would require automakers to make their full suite of repair software available through a single universal interface system, to which individuals and independent mechanics could subscribe for daily, weekly, monthly or yearly fees.
Supporters of “right to repair” have gathered enough voter signatures to put the issue on the November ballot if the Legislature does not pass its own law first. A version of the bill passed in the Senate on May 17, but the measure’s fate in the House is less certain. Similar legislation has been discussed in other states, including New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, but automakers and independent repair shops see Massachusetts as the key battleground.
Proponents argue that the law would increase customer choice and lower costs through additional competition by opening the way for non-dealer repair shops to do work that only dealers can do now. Opponents say the legislation would force automakers to disclose proprietary information, potentially enabling others to duplicate their parts - a claim that is difficult to understand, since the software needed to repair existing parts would not include much of the information needed to produce new parts. The automakers and dealers’ real concern seems to be that the bill would eliminate dealers’ monopoly on certain types of repair work, cutting into their lucrative business.
The deeper issue here is what it means to own something. I wrote about this in 2010 in connection with the Library of Congress’ decision that, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, iPhone users can legally “jailbreak” their phones in order to run non-Apple-authorized software on the devices.
Computerization has given manufacturers more ways to keep a grip on their products, and on our wallets, long after the sale. Manufacturers can easily program their devices so that even the most tech-savvy customer cannot make low-cost or do-it-yourself repairs.
Computerization has not, however, given manufacturers a greater right to do this. Once money changes hands, a product belongs exclusively to its purchaser, who ought to have complete choice over what to do with it from that point on. The law has long recognized this principle for tangible products like cars and cell phones, though consumer rights are much less clear for intangible products like software or video files, which are usually licensed under restrictive terms.
While consumers technically own the computers that are built into every modern car, without the appropriate software, they lack the ability to access the data those computers produce. This is the equivalent to putting a lock on the trunk of a new car and then telling customers that, though they own the whole car, only the dealership will have the key to unlock the trunk.
Of course, automakers have no obligation to give customers or repair shops their digital software keys for free. A “right to repair” law will not ask them to make their software available for free; it will merely require that they be willing to sell it to those who are willing to pay.
Given the complexity of modern cars, it’s unlikely that very many people would be able to fix their own vehicles even with all of the tools “right to repair” would make available. But they would no longer be forced to return to dealerships to access features of the cars they have already bought and paid for.
Massachusetts is on the right road. I hope the rest of the country follows.