Automakers claim resolution in right-to-repair dispute, but critics remain skeptical.

Automakers claim resolution in right-to-repair dispute, but critics remain skeptical.

The Battle for Control: Who Owns the Data Generated by Your Car?

Car Data

For almost a decade, the question of who owns and controls the data generated by your car has been at the center of a heated debate. This seemingly innocuous issue has the potential to revolutionize the way we own and maintain our technologically advanced vehicles. Last week, three industry organizations representing major automakers and repair shops claimed they had finally reached an agreement on the right to repair. However, right-to-repair advocates remain skeptical about whether the agreement truly grants car owners full control over their vehicle’s data.

The agreement, outlined in a letter to the US Congress, commits automakers to provide independent repair shops with the same access to data, tools, and information that their own dealership networks have. While this may seem like a step in the right direction, right-to-repair advocates argue that it falls short of granting car owners unrestricted control over the streams of data that their cars generate. These data streams encompass information on location, speed, acceleration, and the performance of a vehicle’s hardware and software.

One concern is that the agreement could potentially disadvantage smaller, independent repair shops and at-home tinkerers in the future, making it harder for car owners to find affordable and accessible repair options. The lack of enforcement mechanisms also raises doubts about whether automakers will truly follow through on their promises.

“In terms of how automakers behave and whether vehicle owners or repair shops will get access to information—I don’t think this will change anything,” says Paul Roberts, founder of SecuRepairs.org, an organization advocating for the right to repair.

Interestingly, the Auto Care Association, the largest US trade group for independent repair shops and aftermarket parts suppliers, was not included in the agreement. Corey Bartlett, the group’s chair, points out that the agreement fails to address significant barriers faced by consumers seeking to repair tech-heavy cars. Smaller and rural repair shops often cannot afford the expensive tools, subscriptions, and training required for the newest models, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. They fear that access to repair information will continue to diminish as cars become more complex and services increasingly rely on apps and the internet.

The tradition of DIY car repair and independent auto shops has long been a part of car culture and the auto industry. According to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, the trade group representing most global automakers, even 70% of their own certified collision repair shops are not owned by dealerships.

Many repair shops, particularly those affiliated with certified networks, claim that they have not faced difficulties accessing the information necessary to fix cars, even before the recent agreement. Michael Bradshaw, vice president of K & M Collision and vice chair of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists, states that his shop pays to keep up with 30 automaker certification programs. Despite this, he acknowledges that the agreement does not provide him with any additional benefits. However, he also argues that it is reasonable for repairers to pay for automakers’ certification programs, as developing car technology and the corresponding repair documentation is costly for manufacturers. Bradshaw believes that paying for access incentivizes automakers to create clear repair information, ensuring safe and effective repairs. He suggests that businesses struggling to afford this data are also likely to neglect training and equipment investments.

For others in the industry, concerns lie in the absence of industry-wide changes that would force automakers to standardize and open up their data. Without such changes, there is a fear that car companies will limit access to repair information or steer customers towards their own dealership networks to maximize profits. Advocates argue that if car owners had direct ownership of their vehicle’s generated data without automakers’ specialized tools or systems, they could diagnose and repair their cars themselves or authorize their preferred repair shops to do so. Dwayne Myers, co-owner of Dynamic Automotive, asserts, “My fear, if no one gives some stronger guidelines, is that I know automakers are going to monetize car data in a way that’s unaffordable for us to gain access.”

The right to repair issue has caught the attention of lawmakers, with a US House of Representatives subcommittee on intellectual property and the internet conducting a hearing on the matter. Bipartisan representatives have already introduced bills related to right to repair, indicating a growing interest in resolving this contentious issue.

The hearing follows the conflict surrounding a Massachusetts law passed in 2020, granting car owners more control over their car’s data. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation challenged the law, preventing its enforcement while awaiting a judge’s decision. However, the Massachusetts attorney general recently announced intentions to penalize automakers for non-compliance with the law. Meanwhile, the US Department of Transportation cautioned automakers against complying with the Massachusetts law due to concerns about cybersecurity risks. This letter seemed to contradict earlier commitments by the Biden administration on right-to-repair issues.

Brian Weiss, spokesperson for the Alliance, declined to comment on the Massachusetts law due to ongoing litigation. He suggests that it is up to policymakers to determine how the new agreement will impact existing state right-to-repair policies. The signatories of the agreement have committed to advocating for federal rules on the right to repair and opposing state legislation that may create a patchwork of differing obligations to DIYers and independent repairers.

According to Myers, granting customers ownership of their car’s data today would primarily give them the right to choose where they get their car fixed. However, he also believes it is essential to establish car owners’ control over this information to prevent potential misuse in the future. Understanding what automakers are collecting and why is crucial for consumer protection.

As the battle for control over car data continues, it is evident that this issue extends well beyond traditional repair concerns. The outcome will shape the future of car ownership, the auto industry, and how technological advancements in vehicles are integrated with consumer rights. “It’s easier to address this now, in the early days,” emphasizes Roberts, the right-to-repair advocate.

Ultimately, the resolution of this ongoing battle will have far-reaching implications for consumers, repair shops, automakers, and the evolving landscape of the automotive industry.