There are times when a mechanic or road hobbyist with a complete toolbox and the right knowledge can fix any type of car. In Massachusetts, the ballot initiative may soon make the case again, with one major difference – mechanics will need to add a software subscription to the toolbox.
The ballot initiative is called “the right to improve.” Because car guts are becoming less mechanical and more digital, diagnostic software and scanning tools are increasingly needed even for basic repairs. However, car makers are reluctant to provide these tools widely, instead of ordering complete information and software for their franchise dealers. The Massachusetts Initiative will require car makers to make their complete range of repair software available through a single universal interface system, where individuals and independent mechanics can subscribe for daily, weekly, monthly or annual fees.
Supporters of the “right to improve” have collected enough voter signatures to place the issue in the November ballot if the Legislature does not pass its own law. The version of the bill was passed in the Senate on May 17, but the fate of the steps in the House is uncertain. Similar laws have been discussed in other states, including New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, but independent car makers and repair shops see Massachusetts as the main battleground.
Proponents argue that the law will increase customer choice and reduce costs through additional competition by opening the way for non-dealer workshops to do work that can only be done by dealers. Opponents say the law will force car makers to disclose proprietary information, potentially allowing others to duplicate their parts – claims that are difficult to understand, because the software needed to improve existing parts will not include much of the information needed to produce new parts. The main concern of car makers and dealers is that the bill will eliminate the dealers’ monopoly on certain types of repair work, cutting their profitable business.
The deeper problem here is what it means to have something. Computerization has given producers more ways to maintain their products, and on our wallets, long after the sale. Manufacturers can easily program their devices so that even the most tech-savvy customers cannot do low-cost repairs or do it themselves.
Computerization has not, however, given producers greater rights to do this. Once money changes hands, a product belongs exclusively to buyers, who should have a complete choice of what to do with it from then on. The law has long recognized this principle for tangible products such as cars and cellphones, although consumer rights are far less clear for intangible products such as software or video files, which are usually licensed with restrictive provisions.
While consumers technically have computers built into every modern car, without the appropriate software, they don’t have the ability to access the data that the computer produces. This is the same as putting a key in the trunk of a new car and then notifying the customer that, even though they have the whole car, only the dealer will have the key to unlock the trunk.
Of course, car makers have no obligation to give their customers or key digital repair shop software for free. The “right to improve” law will not require them to provide their software for free; it will only require that they are willing to sell it to those who are willing to pay.
Given the complexity of modern cars, it is unlikely that very many people will be able to repair their own vehicles even with all the “right to repair” tools available. But they are no longer forced to return to dealers to access car features that they have bought and paid for.
Massachusetts is on the right path. I hope the whole country follows suit.