Maine Monitor: Maine’s Auto ‘Right to Repair’ Ballot Initiative Reflects a Growing National Movement

    Citizen Initiative in Maine Fights for “Right to Repair” Movement

    By Emmett Gartner, The Maine Monitor, October 15, 2023

    A citizen initiative on Maine’s November ballot brings the state into a national “right to repair” movement that aims to give consumers more control over the maintenance and repair of the products they purchase.

    Advocates argue that “right to repair” legislation promotes fairness and provides buyers with more options for fixing their products by granting them the same access to repairs as the manufacturers.

    Similar laws have already been enacted in Colorado, which requires agricultural equipment manufacturers to provide customers with repair resources, and in New York, which focuses on electronic equipment. In Maine, Question 4 seeks to apply these principles to the automotive industry, where cars are increasingly reliant on computerized systems for tracking performance, diagnosing issues, and monitoring vehicle movements.

    However, independent auto repair shop owners feel that they have been left behind as these technological innovations progress. They claim that while these systems wirelessly transmit data to manufacturers, local mechanics and car owners are excluded, hindering their ability to diagnose and choose repair options.

    Question 4 aims to address this issue by requiring car manufacturers to provide access to computerized systems known as “telematics” and diagnostic tools to repairers and car owners alike.

    Opponents argue that access to these systems is already available to independent repairers, and implementing a standardized access platform for vehicle computer systems could pose cybersecurity risks.

    The question posed to voters is, “Do you want to require vehicle manufacturers to standardize on-board diagnostic systems and provide remote access to those systems and mechanical data to owners and independent repair facilities?”

    If approved, the initiative would mandate the establishment of an independent entity, including representatives from auto repair shops and car manufacturers, overseen by Maine’s Attorney General, to streamline data access through a standardized authorization process.

    The Maine initiative was sparked by a group of independent auto repair shop owners and other “right to repair” supporters, who collected over 70,000 signatures for a citizens’ petition presented to the Maine Secretary of State’s Office.

    According to the Maine Right to Repair Coalition, which led the initiative, 90 percent of new vehicles now come equipped with systems that wirelessly transmit repair information to the manufacturer. However, car owners and independent repair shops are barred from accessing this data, limiting their choices and agency. Tim Winkeler, CEO of VIP Tire and Service in Auburn and leader of the coalition, argues that vehicle owners should have the freedom to repair their cars wherever they choose, rather than being forced to rely on more expensive dealerships.

    Erik Lowell, owner of Duval’s Service Center in South Portland, supports Question 4 because he believes customers should have the right to repair their cars at their preferred locations. He stresses that since purchasing a car is the second-largest investment for most people after a home, they deserve the right to decide how it is repaired.

    While Lowell hasn’t experienced difficulties accessing diagnostic systems in newer models yet, he anticipates challenges arising once warranties expire and customers seek independent mechanics instead of dealerships. His concerns are not solely for his business but also for his neighborhood auto shop, which has been independently owned and operated for nearly 50 years. Lowell emphasizes that his shop can handle a wide range of repairs, but if they are unable to access diagnostic systems, they would be unable to address check-engine lights, brake lights, and other issues.

    Limited access to diagnostic systems also complicates safety inspections, as mechanics cannot determine the cause of a check-engine light if they cannot connect to the system. Maine requires annual vehicle inspections, and Lowell’s shop is licensed to perform them.

    Dan Williams, an auto mechanic in Boothbay, has already experienced difficulties with newer cars. When attempting to connect to the onboard diagnostics systems of model years 2021 onward, he receives an “access denied” message, rendering his repair efforts futile.

    The opposition to Question 4 mainly comes from the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group representing car manufacturers like General Motors, Ford, Subaru, and Toyota. The Maine Automobile Dealers Association, which represents franchised car and truck dealers, is also opposed to the initiative.

    Tom Brown, the association’s president, explains that their opposition aligns with the Alliance’s views, including the argument that the initiative is unnecessary because access to diagnostics already exists. The Alliance states that they already provide independent repairers with the required access, pointing to a 2014 memorandum of understanding signed between manufacturers and some automotive repair and parts organizations. The memorandum was updated in July of this year to include provisions for telematics sharing. However, some independent repair groups claim they were excluded from the new agreement, and critics argue that manufacturers still retain control over data sharing.

    Wayne Weikel, Vice President of State Government Affairs for the Alliance, asserts that manufacturers have created a centralized website that connects mechanics with diagnostic information. The Alliance also highlights cybersecurity risks associated with increasing access to vehicle data, as it would require breaching the current “hardened connection” between manufacturers and vehicles. Weikel believes that the standardized platform proposed in Question 4 is unprecedented and could be vulnerable to hacking.

    The issue of cybersecurity has even confounded federal regulators, as they have wavered on their position regarding a Massachusetts right to repair law that was approved by 75 percent of voters. Initially, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claimed the law conflicted with federal cybersecurity provisions and should not be followed. However, in August, they reversed their stance, allowing the law to take effect as long as wireless access was limited to proximity to the vehicle.

    Jessica Silbey, a law professor specializing in intellectual property law at Boston University, believes manufacturers have a vested interest in maintaining the quality and safety of their products but sees no reason why independent repairs should be excluded. She emphasizes the need to balance these interests without monopolizing the repair industry.

    Lowell acknowledges the security concerns raised by opponents of Question 4 and supports the access authorization process used by Chrysler to connect mechanics to diagnostic systems. He sees universalizing this process for car owners and independent mechanics as a logical step forward.

    Silbey highlights the potential impact on other independent mechanics whose work relies on accessing car data and tools. She warns that many of them may not be able to immediately adapt to new systems, leading to frustration and a need to overhaul their way of operating.

    Support for the “right to repair” movement has been growing in the United States, with multiple states enacting related legislation in the past year. Silbey believes this moment will be significant in history and hopes that car companies will collaborate with the people to find ways to ensure the repairability of goods, reduce waste, and lower costs.

    This article was originally published by The Maine Monitor, a nonprofit and nonpartisan news organization dedicated to providing regular coverage of important issues.

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