Subaru buyers in Massachusetts are caught up in the battle for the right to repair

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Massachusetts dealerships sell 2022 Subaru cars without in-vehicle wireless technology.

Brian Hohmann, mechanic and owner of Accurate Automotive, in Burlington, Massachusetts, attaches a diagnostic scan tool, center left, to a vehicle and laptop, below, Tuesday, Feb. 1, 2022, in Burlington. Stephen Sene / AP Photo

Driving a rugged Subaru through snowy weather is a rite of passage for some New Englanders, whose area is a key market for the Japanese automaker.

  • Voters agree firmly with the “right to reform” ballot question.

So it came as a surprise to Subaru fans when Massachusetts dealers began selling the 2022 line of cars without a key component: in-vehicle wireless technology that connects drivers with music, navigation, roadside assistance and collision-avoidance sensors.

“It was not brought up by the dealer,” said Joy Tewksbury-Pabst, who bought a new Subaru Ascent without realizing it would lose the remote start and shutdown features she had before trading her 2019 model. She also lost the ability to check wiper fluid levels, tire pressure and mileage on her phone.

What is happening in Massachusetts reflects a broader battle over who has the “right to repair” increasingly complex electronic products — from iPhones and farm tractors to the family car.

About 75% of Massachusetts voters sided with the auto repair industry in 2020 by passing a ballot initiative that should allow car owners and their favorite auto shops to peek into their online vehicle data collection more easily. Since then, the automakers have fought in court.

Two of them, Subaru and Kia, said that instead of breaking the new law, they would disable their “wireless communications” systems for new models in the state. Car buyers and dealerships were feeling the effects.

“It’s definitely a big problem,” said Joe Clark, general manager of the Steve Louis Subaru Agency in Hadley, western Massachusetts. “People call back after the event, realizing they’ve missed something.”

Tewksbury-Pabst was one of more than 2.5 million people who voted to hold the ballot in November 2020, after an expensive election battle marked by a duel with TV ads. She believes it will help independent auto shops compete with in-house dealer repair shops.

She is mostly frustrated with Subaru, describing her reaction to the law as “like a kid who didn’t get what he wanted and took the ball and went home.”

Cars already have a diagnostic port that mechanics can access for essential repair information, but independent auto stores say only automakers and dealers can access real-time diagnostics that cars now send wirelessly. This is increasingly important amid the shift to electric vehicles, many of which do not have these diagnostic ports.

The law requires automakers to create an open standard for sharing mechanical data. Subaru spokesman Dominic Infante said the “impossibility to comply” with this clause “is detrimental to both our retailers and our customers.”

“The data platform required by the new law to provide data does not exist and will not be any time soon,” he said in an email.

A trade group in the auto industry sued state Attorney General Maura Healey immediately after a law passed to prevent him from operating, arguing that the schedule was unreasonable, penalties too onerous, and that sharing too much driver data automatically with third parties introduced cybersecurity and risks. Privacy.

Part of the fight also revolves around who can alert drivers and encourage them to visit when the car feels the need for repair. The current system favors dealerships, which many auto stores fear will soon put them out of business if independent mechanics can’t easily access the software upgrades and mechanical data needed to make basic repairs—from tire alignment to broken seat heaters.

“If we don’t have access to repair information and diagnostic information, you are putting an entire workforce out of business,” said Bob Lane, owner of Direct Tire & Auto Service, in the Boston suburb of Watertown. “If, because of the data point of view, the only person who can fix the car is the dealer, the consumer has lost the option.”

The Right to Repair movement now has a staunch ally in US President Joe Biden, who signed an executive order last year promoting competition in repair work, and has already counted some victories after Apple and Microsoft voluntarily began making it easier for consumers to repair. their phones and their laptops.

“Denying the right to reform raises prices for consumers,” Biden said in January. “This means that independent repair shops cannot compete for your business.”

The Federal Trade Commission and state legislatures have also been eyeing regulatory changes. Restrictions are under scrutiny that direct consumers into the repair networks of manufacturers and sellers, adding costs to consumers and closing independent stores, many of which are owned by entrepreneurs from poor communities. U.S. Representative Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois, introduced a bill this month to enable auto repair shops to have the same data available to dealerships.

Brian Hohmann has spent decades adapting to changes in automotive technology, from attending a school to repair carburetors—now an antiquated technology—to learning how to program.

“Each car now has 50 computers with four tires on it,” said Hohmann, owner of Accurate Automotive in the Boston suburb of Burlington. “If you’re not a computer expert, you’re struggling.”

But Hohmann said most independent garages are fully capable of competing with dealers in both repair skills and price as long as they have the information and access to the software they need. This often includes buying expensive automaker-specific scanners, or paying for a day pass or annual subscription to get the desired access.

Massachusetts rules already favor independent auto repairers more than other places thanks to an earlier right-to-repair law that voters passed in 2012. But that was before most cars began wirelessly transmitting much of their critical data out of the car — exposing what auto stores see as a loophole in the rules Current focus on in-vehicle diagnostics.

The automakers argue that independent stores can actually get the data they need, with permission — but making it automatically accessible by third parties is dangerous.

The lawsuit, brought by the Alliance for Automotive Innovation — a trade group backed by Ford, General Motors, Toyota and other major automakers, including Subaru and Kia — said such data access “could, in the wrong hands, lead to disaster.”

The issue is now in the hands of US District Judge Douglas Woodlock, who is reviewing whether the most controversial ballot clause should be separated to allow other parts to influence. 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 looking at deferring the law to give automakers more time to comply.

Subaru and Kia said most drivers will still be able to use their Apple CarPlay or Android Auto to stream music or get navigation assistance.

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