Feds, Mass. AG agree on path forward for ‘right to repair’ law

Local News

Earlier this year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told automakers not to comply with the law due to safety concerns.

After a wildly expensive ballot initiative, Massachusetts voters approved a new “right to repair” law in 2020. David L. Ryan / The Boston Globe

Almost three years after Massachusetts voters approved a new motor vehicle ‘right to repair’ law, officials appear to have paved a way forward for its actual implementation.

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell’s office attempted to begin enforcement of the law in June. But, shortly after, federal officials told automakers that they should not comply with the law because of safety concerns. 

In an exchange of letters on Tuesday, Campbell’s office and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ironed out their differences, which mostly centered on the possibility of bad actors gaining increased access to a vehicle’s controls and data. 

“USDOT strongly supports the right to repair and is eager to promote consumers’ ability to choose independent or DIY repairs without compromising safety to themselves or others on our nation’s roads,” Director of Public Affairs at the U.S. Department of Transportation Ben Halle said in a statement. “The clarifications contained in the exchange of letters between state and federal partners ensure a path forward to promote competition and give consumers more options, while mitigating a dangerous risk to safety.”

The law, which spurred the most expensive ballot initiative in Massachusetts history, requires automakers to provide customers and independent repair shops with access to a type of vehicle information called “telematics.” This is information that a vehicle detects before transmitting it elsewhere. It can be used to quickly diagnose problems with a vehicle. 

But the NHTSA said in June that the law conflicts with, and therefore is preempted by, the National Highway Traffic Safety Act. It would increase the likelihood of cyberattacks, thus posing an “unreasonable risk to motor vehicle safety,” federal officials said at the time. 

On Tuesday, NHTSA Assistant Chief Counsel for Litigation and Enforcement Kerry Kolodziej wrote to Campbell’s office to confirm a “mutual understanding” of how to mitigate those risks. 

Automakers can comply with the right to repair law by providing independent repair shops with the information in question while in close proximity, she wrote. Compliance can be achieved without providing the long-range remote access that could open the door for cyberattacks. Short-range wireless technology like Bluetooth could be used to give vehicle owners and independent shops access to the telematics. 

“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,” Kolodziej wrote. “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.”

Assistant Attorney General Eric A. Haskell responded to Kolodziej later on Tuesday, confirming that short-range connectivity could achieve compliance with the Massachusetts law without preempting the Motor Vehicle Safety Act. 

“This is a good example of how our all-of-government approach to competition can solve complex problems for the benefit of consumers and small businesses,” a senior White House official told Boston.com. 

In June, Massachusetts Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey called on the NHTSA to reverse course when it told automakers not to comply with the law. They said federal officials were favoring “Big Auto” and undermining the will of Massachusetts voters. 

Warren and Markey commended the federal government Tuesday. 

“Today’s action will not only help to ease burdens and lower costs for Massachusetts drivers, but also ensure that transportation regulators continue to build on the promise of the Biden administration’s pro-competition, pro-consumer agenda,” the two senators said in a joint statement.