A consumer battle has been raging in America’s Heartland for several years as farm equipment becomes more high-tech and companies like John Deere resist giving independent repair shops access to the computer codes running their giant machines. Doing so could lead to calamity, according to tractor companies who want to keep the service, parts and repair business for themselves. On the other hand is the ridiculous scenario of farmers who beg and borrow $600,000 to pay for a harvester that they themselves cannot fix when it breaks.
The same dynamic is at play in Question 1 on next week’s ballot. We’re not talking combines so much as cars, trucks and SUVs. The referendum seeks to update the state’s “Right to Repair” law, allowing consumers and independent repair shops access to data collected and transmitted by their cars. Voters should support the update by marking “yes” on Question 1.
The debate over the referendum is clouded by technical detail — and $42 million worth of spending on both sides, and counting. At issue are “telematics,” the information captured by your car’s computer and streamed back to a manufacturer who uses that data to guide future design decisions — and also to prompt you to visit the dealership for an oil change or to rotate your tires.
The state’s original “Right to Repair” law, passed seven years ago, covers codes amassed by your car’s computer. But it does not specifically give consumers and their mechanics license to real-time “telematics.” Hence, we have a ballot question once again pitting car makers against the auto repair industry.
One of the most frightening aspects of this campaign is the idea pushed by Question 1 opponents that opening access to a vehicle’s telemetry somehow opens the door to stalkers and hackers. Information technology professionals refute this as a stretch, at best.
Paul Roberts, publisher of the Security Ledger and founder of a group of IT professionals who support the update, calls that a “scare tactic.” In a column for WBUR, Roberts adds that the referendum is really about a much bigger issue than car data or even farm equipment. It’s about resisting the software monopolies created by makers of any product who “stifle competition and innovation while bleeding consumers of their money, their data or both.”
We couldn’t agree more. When you buy a car, it’s yours, from the front bumper to the rear. That includes the stream of data piping out of its transmitters. We urge voters to approve Question 1.