NHTSA, Massachusetts Find Common Ground on State's Right to Repair Law

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) revised its stance on Massachusetts' "right to repair" law, saying Aug. 22 it "strongly supports" right to repair and may have found a way to allow independent repairers access to vehicle data without compromising the safety of that data.

The letter came a bit more than two months after NHTSA's last comment on the subject. On June 13, it sent a letter to 22 automakers telling them not to comply with the state's Data Access Law, which had finally gone into effect June 1---2.5 years after being approved by voters in November 2020. In that letter, NHTSA said it had "significant safety concerns" with allowing open remote access to vehicle telematics, as required by the law.

In the Aug. 22 letter, addressed to Massachusetts Assistant Attorney General Eric Haskell, NHTSA said it has been working with the state's Office of the Attorney General, as well as the U.S. Department of Transportation and other federal partners, to identify a solution: giving independent repair facilities wireless access to a vehicle from within close proximity, without providing long-range remote access.

Vehicle manufacturers could use short-range wireless protocols, such as Bluetooth, to allow the vehicle owner or an independent repair facility to access all “mechanical data,” as defined by the law, for that individual vehicle. 

"In NHTSA’s view, a solution like this one, if implemented with appropriate care, would significantly reduce the cybersecurity risks---and therefore the safety risks---associated with remote access," the letter said. "Limiting the geographical range of access would significantly reduce the risk that malicious actors could exploit vulnerabilities at scale to access multiple vehicles, including, importantly, when vehicles are driven on a roadway. Such a short-range wireless compliance approach, implemented appropriately, therefore would not be preempted [by the federal Vehicle Safety Act.]"

NHTSA asked state officials to confirm a solution allowing wireless access when in close physical proximity to the vehicle would be compliant with the state law. 

NHTSA also said, based on its discussions with the state, there is a common understanding that implementing a secure “open access platform,” as required in the law, is not yet available, and that vehicle manufacturers may need time to develop and test that technology, but NHTSA is open to continuing to work with the state and other stakeholders on that option.

In July, the Society of Collision Repair Specialists (SCRS) and the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a trade group representing automakers, along with the Auto Service Association, signed a pact stating independent repair facilities shall have access to the same diagnostic and repair information automakers make available to authorized dealers.

Aaron Schulenburg, executive director of SCRS, said he is not certain what NHTSA’s concerns or comments surrounding Massachusetts' law mean to the repair process, or that they have any direct impact on the pact signers' perspective at this point. 

"From our experience, independent collision repair facilities are not currently struggling to gain access to the data or tools they need to fix the vehicles properly," Schulenburg said. "What collision repair businesses do struggle with today are insurance claim settlement practices that place economic pressure on consumers and independent businesses and discourage the use of available repair data, procedures and prescribed tools to accomplish a proper repair."

Two organizations---the Auto Care Association and CAR Coalition---that have long supported right to repair laws at the state and federal levels, including Massachusetts' law, commended NHTSA for revisiting its position, but said more needs to be done.

"The Auto Care Association is gratified by NHTSA’s acknowledgement the Data Access Law is not preempted by the federal Vehicle Safety Act and by its latest statement that NHTSA strongly supports the right to repair," the Auto Care Association said in a statement. "The Auto Care Association further supports Attorney General Andrea Joy Campbell’s stalwart efforts to ensure that vehicle manufacturers implement the Data Access Law safely and promptly. We look forward to the auto manufacturers’ compliance with the law."

Under the state law, such a platform might use cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The association said it does not support a Bluetooth solution to allowing access to that data.

"Short range wireless communication does not create the level playing field expected by the voters of Massachusetts," it said. "The Auto Care Association looks forward to the opportunity to continue the discussion on a viable solution to implement the law that protects both drivers and their security."

“After three years, it’s more than past time the will of the voters be recognized and that Massachusetts consumers have access to their vehicle data," said Justin Rzepka, executive director of the CAR Coalition. "We thank NHTSA for finally agreeing that data can be shared safely with car owners but their solution is wholly inadequate and is no substitute for a federal vehicle right to repair law. Vehicle owners throughout the country deserve protections that will safeguard their rights and prevent a patchwork of state regulations.”

Schulenburg and Wayne Weikel, vice president of state government affairs for the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, are the guests on this week's episode of The Collision Vision podcast on Autobody News, and spoke to host Cole Strandberg about right to repair. Click here to listen now.

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