“They’ve got a plan,” one Maine repair shop owner said of automakers, “and we’re not involved in it.”
Adam Stanley opened his auto repair shop, Stanley’s Auto Repair in Stacyville, ME, nine years ago. About four years in, he began noticing a change. Increasingly, he was losing access to the software he needed to repair vehicles.
In recent years, he’s often had to direct his customers in Stacyville, a town in the foothills of Mount Katahdin, over an hour’s drive to Bangor or nearly three hours away to Portland to get their vehicles repaired.
Stanley spends thousands of dollars on automotive software to be able to diagnose problems, but it’s not possible for him to replace the software in many vehicles. Often auto manufacturers claim their parts include proprietary technology, and if a third party repairs those parts they are violating their rights.
“They’ve got a plan,” Stanley said of automakers, “and we’re not involved in it.”
There has been a growing trend of legislation across the country aimed at providing consumers and independent repair companies with the ability to fix goods. Thirty-three states and Puerto Rico considered right-to-repair legislation this year, which included the ability to fix electronics, appliances, wheelchairs and other gadgets. Bills passed in California, Colorado, Minnesota, New York and Massachusetts, though only the latter has a right-to-repair law specifically for automobiles.
Maine might be next, depending on how votes land on a ballot initiative in November’s election.
Question 4 on the ballot asks, “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 passed, it would require manufacturers of certain motor vehicles to standardize their diagnostic systems and make them accessible to both owners and independent repair facilities.
Supporters say advancements in wireless diagnostic systems that directly relay information to manufacturers are cutting out independent car shops from work. Opponents say the information needed for repairs is already accessible and that standardizing access would open up vulnerability for hacking.
Challenges Faced by Repair Shops
About a year ago, Stanley forged a partnership with the national chain Sullivan Tire and Auto Service in an attempt to fill the repair gap.
Through the partnership, representatives from Sullivan Tire will come to Stanley’s shop to replace software which eliminates some trips to dealerships, although not all.
“It works,” Stanley said, “but it’s inconvenient."
Customers often have to wait days to get appointments scheduled with Sullivan Tire, whose representatives have to drive more than an hour to Stanley’s. The partnership is also an added cost for the shop and ultimately the customer, Stanley said.
Larger auto repair shop leaders throughout Maine have echoed Stanley’s challenges, including Tim Winkeler, president and CEO of VIP Tires & Service in Auburn, who helped head the initiative in Maine after the Auto Care Association reached out to a board he serves on looking to get right-to-repair legislation on another state ballot.
Older car models have an OBD-II port, an onboard computer that monitors data about the car to diagnose problems, Winkeler explained, and repair shops have long had issues getting complete information for repairs this way.
“We just all kind of live with it because it doesn’t happen very often, but today, the reason we’re really fighting it much harder now, is because a lot of the newest cars and a lot of these EVs are now being diagnosed remotely,” Winkeler said.
According to the Maine Automotive Right to Repair Committee, which is behind the initiative, more than 90% of new cars transmit real-time diagnostic and repair information wirelessly only to vehicle manufacturers.
Question 4 would require automakers to set up a secure access portal online, where the owner of a vehicle can grant access to data in order to diagnose and repair their car, Winkeler said.
As of Oct. 11, the committee has spent $1,938,942.03 to support the ballot question. The only other supporting funds have been $17.49 from The James Phinney Baxter Campaign Fund. On the other hand, Automakers and Repairers for Vehicle Repair Choice, whose top donor is a lobby group representing automotive manufacturers, the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Automotive Innovation, has spent $100,504.00 in opposition.
Questions about Necessity, Security Concerns
A nationwide agreement a decade ago guaranteed owners and mechanics access to the same information provided to auto dealers, Wayne Weikel, vice president of state affairs for the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents the auto industry in the U.S., testified during the last legislative session in opposition to a right-to-repair bill.
Weikel pointed to a website automakers created to pool repair information and called the bill behind Question 4 “misleadingly framed as necessary to ensure independent repairers have the information needed to service modern vehicles.”
In 2014, two associations that represent automakers and two groups that represent independent shops entered into a Memorandum of Understanding, under which automakers agreed to standardize diagnostic tools to work on all vehicles, starting with 2018 models. The MOU essentially required the entire country to follow a law Massachusetts voters passed in 2012 making diagnostic information available to independent shops and dealers.
The MOU did not resolve all issues at the time, Winkeler said. It was not a law, so there was no clear basis for filing complaints, he explained. Many of today’s car companies, particularly in the electric vehicle space, were not included in the agreement.
The MOU also did not include access to a vehicle’s telematics data, meaning information generated on a vehicle and transmitted elsewhere through an automaker’s network.
This technology has become a sticking point in recent court battles over Massachusetts’ right to repair law. After 75% of Massachusetts voters approved an expansion of the law in 2020 to include telematics, an organization of carmakers called the Alliance for Automotive Innovation filed a lawsuit to block it.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration initially said the telematics expansion would violate cybersecurity protections in the Federal Vehicle Safety Act. However, the agency concluded in August that the law could be implemented so long as manufacturers grant car owners and independent repair shops telematic data via wireless access “from within close physical distance to the vehicle,” reducing the risk of malicious actors, reported WBUR, the local National Public Radio affiliate.
In opposition to the initiative in Maine, State Rep. Tiffany Roberts, D- North and South Berwick, who is in her second term as House chair of the Legislature’s Innovation, Development, Economic Advancement and Business Committee, similarly focused on digital security.
In a recent opinion piece for the Portland Press Herald, Roberts said the standardized access platform would allow for remote access by third parties. “This raises significant cybersecurity concerns,” Roberts wrote, “as it creates an attractive target for criminals or hostile actors.”
If Maine’s ballot initiative passes, Stanley questioned whether the state would be able to force the hand of manufacturers, particularly given that similar legislation in Massachusetts has been rolled back.
There is nothing unique to Maine repair shops that drove the initiative, Winkeler said, adding that ultimately, as an industry, the goal is to pass federal legislation. A repair act is currently being considered by Congress.