Driving a rugged Subaru through snowy weather is a rite of passage for some New Englanders, whose region is a top market for the Japanese automaker.
So it came as a surprise to Subaru fans when Massachusetts dealers began selling their line of 2022 vehicles without a key ingredient: the in-car wireless technology that connects drivers with music, navigation, roadside assistance and collision avoidance sensors.
“The dealer hasn’t brought it up,” said Joy Tewksbury-Pabst, who bought a new Subaru Ascent without realizing she’d be missing the remote-start and locking features she had before trading in her 2019 model. She also lost the ability to check windshield washer fluid levels, tire pressure, and mileage from her phone.
What’s happening in Massachusetts reflects a wider battle over who has the “right to repair” of increasingly complex electronic products — from iPhones and farm tractors to the family car.
About 75% of voters in Massachusetts sided with the auto repair industry in 2020 by approving a ballot initiative that should allow car owners and their favorite auto shops to more easily access a car’s wealth of online data. Since then, automakers have been fighting it in court.
And two of them, Subaru and Kia, said that instead of violating the new law, they would turn off their wireless “telematics” systems for new models in the state. Car buyers and dealers are feeling the consequences.
“It’s certainly unfortunate,” said Joe Clark, general manager of the Steve Lewis Subaru dealership in the western Massachusetts town of Hadley. “People call back afterwards, realizing they’re missing something.”
Tewksbury-Pabst was one of more than 2.5 million people who voted for the ballot measure in November 2020, following a costly election battle that was marked by dueling TV commercials. She believes it will help independent auto shops compete with dealers’ in-house repair shops.
She is particularly frustrated with Subaru, describing his response to the law as “like a kid who didn’t get his way, grabbed his ball and went home.”
Cars already have a diagnostic port that mechanics can access for basic repair information, but independent auto shops say only automakers and their dealers can access the real-time diagnosis cars now transmit wirelessly. That is becoming increasingly important during the shift to electric cars, many of which do not have those diagnostic ports.
The law requires automakers to create an open standard for mechanical data sharing. Subaru spokesman Dominick Infante said the “inability to comply” with that provision “is a disservice to both our retailers and our customers.”
“The data platform required by the new law to provide the data does not exist and will not exist anytime soon,” he said in an email.
An auto industry trade group immediately sued state attorney general Maura Healey to prevent the law from going into effect, arguing the timeline was unreasonable, the penalties too harsh and the automatic sharing of so much driver data with third parties cybersecurity and privacy risks.
Part of the battle is also over who has to warn and encourage the drivers to come over when the car notices that it needs to be repaired. The current system benefits dealers, who many auto shops fear will soon be out of a job if independent mechanics can’t easily access the software upgrades and mechanical data needed to perform basic repairs — from tire alignment to broken down. seat heating.
“If we don’t have access to repair information, diagnostic information, you put an entire workforce out of business,” said Bob Lane, owner of Direct Tire & Auto Service, in the Boston suburb of Watertown. “If the only person who can fix a car, because of a data point of view, is the dealer, the consumer has lost choice.”
The right-to-repair movement now has a powerful ally in US President Joe Biden, who signed an executive order last year to promote competition in the repair industry and has already won some victories after Apple and Microsoft voluntarily launched it for consumers. make repairs easier to fix their own phones and laptops.
“Denying the right to repair raises prices for consumers,” Biden said in January. “It means independent repair shops can’t compete for your business.”
The Federal Trade Commission and state lawmakers have also been monitoring regulatory changes. It critically examines restrictions that lead consumers to the repair networks of manufacturers and retailers, making consumers more expensive and foreclosure independent stores, many of which are owned by entrepreneurs from poor communities. US Representative Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat, introduced a bill this month to allow auto repair shops to make the same data available to dealers.
Brian Hohmann has spent decades adapting to changes in automotive technology, from attending a carburettor repair school—now an outdated technology—to learning programming.
“Essentially every car is now 50 computers with four tires on it,” said Hohmann, owner of Accurate Automotive in a Boston suburb of Burlington. “If you’re not computer literate, you struggle.”
But Hohmann said most independent garages are perfectly able to compete with dealers on both repair skills and price, as long as they have the information and software access they need. That often means buying expensive, manufacturer-specific scanners or paying for a day pass or annual subscription to get the access you need.
Massachusetts rules already favor independent auto repairers more than other places, thanks to a previous law on the right to repair passed by voters in 2012. as a loophole in the existing rules aimed at diagnostics in the car.
Automakers claim that independent stores can already get the data they need, with permission, but making it accessible to third parties automatically is dangerous.
Such access to data “could spell disaster in the wrong hands,” according to the lawsuit filed by the Alliance for Automotive Innovation – a trade group backed by Ford, General Motors, Toyota and other major automakers, including Subaru and Kia.
The case is now in the hands of U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock, who is looking at whether to split the most controversial vote provision for the other parts to take effect. A decision is expected in March after delays caused by Subaru and Kia’s actions, which the state says the automakers should have disclosed earlier. Massachusetts lawmakers are also considering delaying the effects of the law to give automakers more time to comply.
Subaru and Kia have said most drivers can still use the driving-specific Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to stream music or get navigation assistance.