Subaru buyers caught in a battle for the right to auto repair |

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Driving a rugged Subaru in snowy weather is a rite of passage for some New Englanders, whose region is a prime market for the Japanese automaker.

So it came as a surprise to Subaru fans when dealerships in Massachusetts started selling their 2022 lineup of vehicles without key ingredients: in-car wireless technology that connects drivers to music, navigation, roadside assistance and anti-collision sensors.

“The dealership didn’t talk about it,” said Joy Tewksbury-Pabst, who bought a new Subaru Ascent not realizing it would miss the remote start and lockout features it had before trading. her 2019 model. She also lost the ability to check wiper fluid levels, tire pressure and mileage from her phone.

What’s happening in Massachusetts reflects a larger battle over who has the “right to fix” increasingly complex electronics – from iPhones and farm tractors to family cars.

About 75% of Massachusetts voters sided with the auto repair industry in 2020 by passing a ballot initiative that’s supposed to make it easier for car owners and their favorite auto shops to peek into a car’s online data mine. Since then, car manufacturers have been fighting in court.

And two of them, Subaru and Kia, said that rather than break the new law, they would disable their wireless “telematics” systems on new state models. Car buyers and dealers are feeling the pinch.

“It’s definitely a bummer,” said Joe Clark, general manager of the Steve Lewis Subaru dealership in the western Massachusetts town of Hadley. “People call back after the fact, realizing they’re missing something.”

Tewksbury-Pabst was one of more than 2.5 million people who voted for the ballot measure in November 2020, after a costly election battle marked by dueling TV ads. She thinks this will help independent auto shops compete with in-house dealership repair shops.

She is mostly frustrated with Subaru, describing his reaction to the law as “like a child who didn’t make it and took his ball and went home.”

Cars already have a diagnostic port that mechanics can access to get basic repair information, but independent auto shops say only automakers and their dealers have access to the real-time diagnostics cars now transmit. wireless. This is increasingly important amid the shift to electric cars, many of which don’t have these diagnostic ports.

The law requires automakers to create an open standard for sharing mechanical data. Subaru spokesman Dominick Infante said the “inability to comply” with this provision “is a disservice to both our retailers and our customers.”

“The data platform that the new law requires to provide the data does not exist and will not exist anytime soon,” he said in an email.

An auto industry trade group immediately sued state Attorney General Maura Healey after the law was passed to stop it from taking effect, arguing the delay was unreasonable, the penalties too high and that automatically sharing so much driver data with third parties presented cybersecurity and privacy risks.

Part of the battle is also over who can alert drivers and encourage them to turn in when the car feels it needs a fix. The current system favors dealerships, which many auto shops believe will soon put them out of work if independent mechanics cannot easily access the software upgrades and mechanical data needed to perform basic repairs, tires with broken heated seats.

“If we don’t have access to repair information, diagnostic information, you’re bankrupting an entire workforce,” said Bob Lane, owner of Direct Tire & Auto Service in suburban Boston. in Watertown. “If the only person who can fix a car, data-wise, is the dealership, the consumer has lost the choice.”

The right to repair movement now has a powerful ally in US President Joe Biden, who last year signed an executive order promoting competition in the repair industry and has already scored a few victories after Apple and Microsoft have voluntarily begun to make it easier for consumers to repair. their own phones and laptops.

“Denying the right to repair raises prices for consumers,” Biden said in January. “That means independent repair shops can’t compete for your business.”

The Federal Trade Commission and state legislatures are also considering regulatory changes. Restrictions that steer consumers to manufacturer and seller repair networks are under scrutiny, driving up costs for consumers and shutting down 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 allow auto repair shops to get the same data that’s available to dealerships.

Brian Hohmann has spent decades adapting to changes in automotive technology, from attending school to repair carburetors – a now obsolete technology – to learning programming.

“Essentially every car is now made up of 50 computers with four tires on them,” said Hohmann, owner of Accurate Automotive in the Boston suburb of Burlington. “If you’re not computer savvy, you’re struggling.”

But Hohmann said most independent garages are perfectly capable of competing with dealerships on repair skills and price as long as they have access to the information and software they need. This often involves purchasing expensive automaker-specific scanners, or paying for a day pass or annual subscription to gain the necessary access.

Massachusetts rules already favor independent auto repairers more than other places thanks to an earlier Right to Repair law passed by voters in 2012. But that was before most cars started transmitting wirelessly. much of their crucial data outside the car – presenting what auto shops see as a loophole to existing rules focused on in-car diagnostics.

Automakers say independent shops can already get the data they need, with permission – but making it automatically available to third parties is dangerous.

Such access to data “could, in the wrong hands, be catastrophic,” said 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.

The case is now in the hands of U.S. District Judge Douglas Woodlock, who is considering whether to split the most contested voting provision to let the other parts take effect. A decision is expected in March after delays caused by actions by Subaru and Kia, which the state says the automakers should have disclosed sooner. Massachusetts lawmakers are also considering postponing the law’s effects to give automakers more time to comply.

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

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