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The debate about the right to repair your own car has been brewing for years now. With cars becoming less mechanical and distinctly more integrated with electronics in the past decade, repairing vehicles takes more specialty tools and electronics than ever. 

Massachusetts has been at the frontline of this proverbial war that carries immeasurable significance. Although the car industry has decades of baked-in practices like OBDII that allow consumers and repair shops to easily access diagnostics on any car, right-to-repair laws set a precedent for other industries. Still, automakers make expensive proprietary diagnostic systems for their specific vehicles that can bar normal folks and enthusiasts alike from fixing their recently acquired cheap luxury cars. Looking at you BMW Integrated Service Technical Application (ISTA). You too, VW VAG-COM Diagnostic System (VCDS).

Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of right-to-repair laws late last year with 75 percent of the vote. It was one of the most decisive victories for the greater good that I’ve ever seen in the United States, and it meant that automakers had to make the telematics and data systems on their cars via a “standard open platform” by model year 2022. That model year has now come around, and Subaru solved this question with a simple answer: Disable the telematics. This not only allows Subaru to continue selling its cars, but it also represents a shift in the right-to-repair battle, as Subaru showed it is willing to relent.

Welcome to Headlight. This is a daily news feature that lights up one current event in the car world and breaks it down by three simple subheadings: What Happened, Why It Matters, and What To Look For Next. Look for it in the morning (Eastern time) every weekday.

What Happened

According to the Boston Globe and Repairer Driven News, Subaru has decided to disable its StarLink wireless data systems in Massachusetts. It connects equipped cars to the Subaru mothership via an always-on internet connection and it allows Subaru to monitor telemetry from cars equipped with StarLink and use that data for its own purposes, without any access for individual consumers or repair shops.

Massachusetts state law stipulates that vehicles of the 2022 model year and later will have a standard open platform for telematics systems like StarLink so consumers can easily access it. Think of OBD-II but with larger bandwidth for data and more capability. The reason Subaru has decided to disable StarLink for customers in Massachusetts is clear. If they hadn’t, they would have fallen foul of local regulations.

The complication is that a trade group called the Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI), a group Subaru is a member of, sued the state after the passage of the law, calling it a “practical impossibility” for any of its members to comply with. The AAI represents virtually all of the automakers that sell cars in the United States and thus represents a powerful force against this law.

The AAI sought the courts to enjoin enforcement of the law,  legal-speak for prohibiting the enforcement of the law. Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey reopened evidence in the case to show that Subaru has complied with the law, where the AAI contended that it would be impossible to do so. 

Why It Matters

Right-to-repair affects every piece of new-age technology and equipment we buy and use every day. The automotive right-to-repair is just a new front in that war. With a world that is only getting more technologically advanced technologically, things become more integrated and application-specific. Or, so they say. As an adjacent example, Apple has locked every separate part of the iPhone 13. You cannot replace the camera, screen, or logic board with aftermarket or genuine parts without proprietary software from apple. The phone will error out and not function properly. This is what Massachusetts is attempting to avoid with vehicle repair.

A $1,500 phone is one thing, but a $30,000-plus vehicle represents the second-largest investment for most Americans after a home. The ability to freely choose how to repair your car without having to go to a dealership is valuable and good on several levels. It allows people to keep their cars on the road longer, helps folks save money, opens the opportunity for customization, and keeps the entire operation more sustainable.

If right-to-repair were not a thing, we could have utterly disposable shitboxes for cars. As an individual or a shop, imagine if an incredibly simple repair were curtailed by the need to code a small part with software that is virtually impossible to access. The most striking example of this is Tesla, which does not sell body panels to anybody and tightly regulates vehicles through telematics. Tesla can disable features that were paid for by the previous owner and have done so in practice, like Autopilot. Tesla can even refuse repair or support via information from the telematics that suggests tampering or modification of the car.

Another interesting layer is how automakers sell the data they farm from these always-connected systems. Like everything else you do on the internet, information about you is like gold to advertisers. Through the movements of your car, they can paint an even clearer picture about who you are and what products you would be interested in. The primary issue is data security and how the automakers handle that data is not up to the consumer. After they agree to it, of course.

Subaru relenting on this law and breaking the proverbial AAI picket line is incredibly significant and shows that right-to-repair isn’t an inevitability, it is in fact a choice that automakers and other companies can make about their products. We need strong, impartial government oversight to protect consumers, and Massachusetts is taking those ever-important steps.

Of course, this also means customers who buy these Subarus in Massachusetts are losing out on the safety and security subscription services that require the telematics to function. 

What To Look For Next

If Subaru has broken what the AAI has asserted for so long, it means that more automakers can surely disable telematics altogether. With the right-to-repair battle spooling up across many industries, this won’t be the last nor the first time we see manufacturers of things relenting on policy or law in the interest of a long-term solution. With the current battle at John Deere over right-to-repair and worker’s rights, this is bound to only become a larger issue for the United States, and the state of Massachusetts.

Whether the dominos will fall for other automakers selling vehicles with telematics in Massachusetts remains to be seen. They will certainly have to comply with the law because there is seemingly no path around it. The people of the state have spoken, and their Attorney General is intent upon enforcing the will of the people.

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