Bill in Congress echoes Mass. automotive right-to-repair plan

Even as Massachusetts’ controversial automotive “right-to-repair” law remains mired in federal court, an Illinois congressman has introduced a bill in the US House of Representatives that would establish a similar standard nationwide.

The REPAIR Act, filed on Wednesday by Democrat Bobby Rush, would require automakers to provide consumers and independent mechanics with wireless access to the diagnostic data generated by most new autos. Like the Massachusetts law, the REPAIR Act updates a 2014 voluntary agreement between carmakers and the governments of every US state.

That agreement required car companies to make diagnostic data available through a physical connection to the vehicle. But it didn’t include “telematics” — digital data transmitted wirelessly to and from the car. Telematic technology is becoming standard equipment on nearly all automobiles, and the revised legislation is intended to make sure that data from such cars remains accessible to consumers and independent mechanics.

Critics of the Massachusetts law have said that increasing access to car telematic systems could pose a major cybersecurity threat. If bad actors break into an insecure network, they could remotely vandalize thousands of automobiles or steal sensitive personal data. The Massachusetts law mentions data security only in passing. But the federal bill would require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to oversee the development of a standardized system designed with strict security measures to reduce the risk of automotive data theft.

The Massachusetts law, which was passed by referendum in 2020, has been tied up in Boston federal court ever since. A lawsuit by the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an auto industry trade group, argues that Massachusetts has no authority to enact such a law because it’s a matter for the federal government to regulate. Rush’s proposed bill would put that issue to rest. But there’s no guarantee that the legislation will survive in a closely divided and highly partisan US Congress,

Rush’s proposed bill has the backing of organizations that represent independent car repair shops and distributors of aftermarket parts. It’s also being hailed by Tommy Hickey, director of the Right to Repair Coalition, which led the campaign to enact the Massachusetts law.

“Right to Repair bills have been sprouting up across the nation at both the state and federal level because of our work here in Massachusetts,” Hickey wrote in an e-mail. “We’re glad to see Congress is considering our state effort for nationwide implementation so that all U.S. car owners can benefit from a competitive repair industry.”

But Robert O’Koniewski, executive vice president of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association, issued a statement that described the federal legislation as “a solution in desperate search for a problem.” O’Koniewski said the existing voluntary agreement between carmakers and state governments already ensures that independent repair shops have all the access they need to cars’ electronic systems.

John Bozzella, president of the carmakers alliance, also issued a statement claiming that the proposed federal law isn’t needed.

“The auto industry continues its long-standing commitment to consumer choice for vehicle repairs,” Bozzella said, adding that the existing voluntary agreement “continues to work and ensures that all information needed to repair and diagnose a vehicle is available.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.