By Matt Murphy
BOSTON (State House News Service) — With a coalition of independent auto repairers eyeing a 2020 ballot question to gain access to digital data collected by vehicles, skeptical lawmakers with questions for both sides heard testimony Monday as they try to decide whether to intervene.
The auto shop owners are seeking an update to the 2012 "right-to-repair" law that was passed to make sure car manufacturers were making the same diagnostic repair information available at a "reasonable" cost to both dealerships and independent mechanics.
The coalition that persuaded the Legislature to pass that law more than seven years ago are back looking for lawmakers to make sure the law is expanded to cover data that is being collected and transmitted to manufacturers wirelessly, and potentially used to give dealerships a competitive advantage.
The Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure heard testimony on a variety of right-to-repair proposals, including the proposed ballot question that is now before the Legislature for consideration. Proponents of a new "right-to-repair" law say it's about protecting consumer choice, but car manufacturers argued that independent shops already have access to all the information they need to repair vehicles.
"There is a level playing field when it comes to access of repair information and a level playing field guarantees consumer choice," said Wayne Weikel, senior director of state government affairs for the Alliance For Automotive Innovation.
Rep. Paul McMurtry of Dedham has filed a bill mirroring the ballot question, and said it would be preferable to have the Legislature deal with the issue rather than allow a question this complicated to go to the ballot.
"Make no doubt about it. This is a consumer protection bill that closes a loophole on a matter that wasn't dealt with in 2012 and quite frankly probably wasn't well understood how reliant our automobiles would become on telematics," McMurtry told the committee.
Committee co-chair Rep. Tackey Chan, however, would later point out that the exclusion of telematics was not a "loophole," but a concession made by repair shop owners during negotiations.
Thomas Hickey, the executive director of the Right to Repair Coalition, told the committee that his group of more than 2,000 independent auto repairers wants to make sure that technological advances in vehicles don't rob consumers of their choice of where to have those vehicles repairs.
The repair shops, Hickey said, are not seeking access to GPS or other personal data.
"This has nothing to do with personal information," Hickey said. "This is about mechanical information necessary to diagnose, repair and maintain a car."
Several lawmakers tried to force repair shop owners to be specific about what information was being withheld through telematics systems, while others came prepared to grill auto manufacturers about the types of data being collected on drivers.
"I understand data has value, but explain how knowing whether I'm gaining weight or losing weight or if I go to Starbucks matters once I've been in an accident," Rep. Jonathan Zlotnik asked a panel from the Right-to-Repair coalition.
Some repair shop owners struggled to articulate how access to the telematics data would help them today.
"I've had very good success getting information since the passage of the 2012 law," said Glenn Wilder, owner of Wilder Brothers Tire Pros in Scituate.
Wilder said he was more concerned about how auto manufacturers might restrict access to data in the future.
Asked for an example of how his business had been impacted, Wilder told the committee the story of one customer whose OnStar system identified a "check engine" light and gave her the option of bringing the vehicle to one of two dealerships for repair.
"It sounds like it's a competitiveness issue more than a repair codes," Chan said.
Weikel also seized on Wilder's anecdote as one that failed to prove the need for an update to the 2012 law, which he said already guarantees independent repair shops with access to the same repair diagnostic information as dealerships, at the same cost.
"You can't simultaneously argue that you have this loyal base of customers and then that some voice from the heavens is going to make you go somewhere else," Weikel said.
Every time the right-to-repair issue surfaces, it has become one of the most heavily lobbied on Beacon Hill and Monday was no exception. Dozens of high-profile lobbyists from some of the state's biggest firms flitted through the Gardner Auditorium before and during the hearing representing clients on both sides of the debate.
Auto manufacturers said most modern vehicles collect volumes of data on how those vehicles are functioning and being driven, even recording a driver's weight, where they drive and how fast. Some of the data is deleted immediately, Weikel said, while some is anonymized and used to give consumers real time info on traffic or to help manufacturers identify and issue safety recalls.
A small amount of data, Weikel said, is tied to an identifiable user and can be used for emergency responses.
"Why can't I have my data for myself?" asked Rep. William Driscoll.
Though neither the McMurtry bill or the ballot question proposed to restrict manufacturers from collecting data, privacy became a theme of the hearing.
Ed Davis, the former Boston police commissioner and security consultant, said he is supporting the bill based on his experience with cybersecurity.
"One thing we've learned is that people should be responsible for their own data," Davis said. "The best defense is knowing who you're dealing with."
Weikel and others, however, said expanding access to telematics data would create a greater risk of personal data being exposed or vehicle telematics systems being hacked.
Sen. Paul Feeney, the Senate co-chair of the committee, said he was "sympathetic" to the consumer choice argument, but was trying to better understand exactly what information repair shops would need to do their jobs.
"So far I haven't been convinced from a personal standpoint, or it hasn't been articulate to me, what those obstacles are," Feeney said.
WBZ NewsRadio's Karyn Regal (@Karynregal) reports