Jan. 17—A citizens' initiative that would open certain types of vehicle diagnostic data to independent Maine auto repair shops may head to voters later this year.
The Maine Right to Repair Coalition said Tuesday that it has collected enough signatures to get the issue on the November ballot and will present a citizens' petition with over 70,000 names to the Maine Department of the Secretary of State on Thursday. To get a question on the state ballot, citizen-initiated referendum campaigns must submit 63,067 validated signatures, which is equal to 10 percent of the votes cast in the most recent gubernatorial election.
The group of Maine repair shop owners, employees and supporters wants to require access to the data collected by wireless technology in new cars and trucks — data that effectively forces the vehicles' owners to go to a manufacturer's dealership to diagnose and fix problems with the vehicle.
While older vehicle models have plug-in engine diagnostic systems that must be accessible to independent repair shops, new models have wireless technology, also known as telematics, that transmits directly to vehicle manufacturers and is not accessible to independently owned shops.
Advocates say the Maine ballot initiative would give car and truck owners access to all the diagnostic and repair data generated by their vehicles, and allow them to give it to any dealer, repair shop or automaker that they choose.
The proposal, which the coalition announced in August, closely mirrors a Massachusetts law that has been mired in litigation since voters there passed it overwhelmingly in 2020.
"The 2023 Maine ballot initiative would accomplish the same thing as the Massachusetts law, which was passed overwhelmingly by a three-to-one margin (75 percent to 25 percent)," Kate Kahn, spokesperson for the Maine Right to Repair Coalition said previously. "This issue is about choice. Consumers want the ability to choose where to take their cars or trucks to be repaired. They do not want to be told they can only take their autos to expensive dealerships."
Tim Winkeler, president and CEO of Auburn-based VIP Tires and Service, said Tuesday that he's pleased with how smoothly the ballot initiative has been so far.
"I'm a novice at this, I don't make my living being involved in issues like this, but it seems like it's been fairly frictionless getting the public support," he said.
Winkeler is the primary signatory on the petition.
The advanced technology features on new cars is great, he said, but the inability for independent repairers to do their jobs is a downside.
A Tesla owner was recently seeking a state inspection sticker at one of VIP's locations, Winkeler said, but the car displayed a light indicating a traction control problem. The service center couldn't pass the vehicle's inspection with the light on, but also couldn't access the dashboard error code to diagnose the problem. The customer had to drive to Boston to get the car diagnosed.
"If we don't do anything, people are going to come back in 20 or 30 years and dealers are going to be the only ones able to fix anything," Winkeler said.
Maine's proposal, if it succeeds, would likely face some of the same challenges from automakers, who argue that individual states have no authority to pass such a law. They also say it creates cybersecurity concerns and argue the industry did not have time to modify the technology and comply with the Massachusetts law.
Kahn has previously dismissed the arguments made by the manufacturers. "They simply do not want to give up their monopoly on the repair market as they stand to make trillions of dollars by shutting out the aftermarket," she said.
But Brian Weiss, vice president of communications for the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance for Automotive Innovation, says there's no monopoly on the market.
In fact, about 70% of post-warranty work is handled by the independent repair community, he said.
All the information necessary for repairs is already available to independent repair businesses and has been since automakers and the repair industry committed to a national memorandum of understanding in 2014, Weiss added.
This new iteration, according to the automotive group, would require vehicle manufacturers to provide unrestricted remote data access to a vehicle's computer, including information that isn't required to make repairs.
"This is a monetizable data grab from national aftermarket part manufacturers and retailers masquerading as consumer protection and support for small businesses," the alliance wrote in a recent memo. "Automotive right to repair already exists and always will. Unlimited access by national aftermarket manufacturers and retailers to your vehicle telematic data is not right to repair. Don't conflate the two."
Winkeler said the issue isn't unique to the automotive industry.
Tech giant Apple announced in 2020 that it would start providing parts and training to third-party repair shops that met its qualifications. A year later, Apple even promised to start selling parts and tools directly to consumers.
This month, the American Farm Bureau Federation announced it had reached a memorandum of understanding with manufacturer John Deere, promising farmers and independent repair shops access to the information needed to service the company's equipment, National Public Radio reported.
"This fight is bigger than just cars and automotives, but we're making sure that we get ahead of the issue in our industry because it might be the largest independent repair industry in the nation," Winkeler said.
The Secretary of State's Office would need to count and certify the petitions' signatures before the proposal can advance to the ballot.