This article originally appeared in Salem News by Christian M. Wade

BOSTON — A national automaker group is jumping into the debate over updates to the state’s “right to repair” law, foreshadowing a costly fight ahead of next year’s ballot.

The Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, which is backed by the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, has formed in response to a proposal inching toward the 2020 ballot. That proposal would overhaul a 2013 state law requiring car manufacturers to share diagnostic and repair information with vehicle owners and repair shops.

Opponents of the petition, who frame the fight as consumer privacy issue, say the law already accounts for technological advances and doesn’t need updating.

Unlike a ballot fight seven years ago, where auto manufacturers and other opponents of the changes found themselves vastly outspent by a last-minute influx of money from third-party auto repair groups, automakers hope to get their message out early this time.

“We’re getting out there early to spread the word and point out complete falsehoods from the other side that this information is somehow needed to fix vehicles,” said Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for the coalition. “We believe this proposal is a grave threat to consumer privacy that will make personal data available to third-party groups with no safeguards.”

The state’s existing “right to repair” law requires automakers to provide dealers and independent shops access to the computer codes needed to diagnose and repair certain auto problems. Critics say that doesn’t include real-time vehicle data, called telematics, which uses wireless technology to transmit data about a vehicle to certified dealerships.

The “right to repair” coalition, which is also backed by national groups and includes several auto shops north of Boston, argues that the law unfairly allows manufacturers to use wireless technology to divert business to dealerships. Besides the financial impact on independent shops, supporters say consumers end up paying more for dealership repairs.

“This is really a fight for Massachusetts consumers,” said Tommy Hickey, the coalition’s director. “Without this information people may lose the choice to bring their car to an independent repair shop.”

The proposed ballot measure includes a provision that, starting with model year 2022, manufacturers selling cars in the state must include an “open access” platform accessible by the owner, car dealerships or independent repair shops.

A costly battle

Massachusetts, with its strong consumer protection laws, is considered a test ground for right-to-repair initiatives. Those on both sides of the ballot question expect a costly fight.

The state places no restrictions on donations to ballot committees. Corporations, interest groups, labor unions and others often get involved, underwriting a deluge of advertising.

If previous elections are an indicator, money will pour into next year’s ballot campaigns by the millions of dollars, much of it from out-of-state donors.

The 2012 “right to repair” question was one of the most heavily lobbied issues on Beacon Hill in recent years, with groups on both sides spending millions of dollars.

Backers of the referendum raised and spent more than $2.3 million — six times more than opponents of the measure — thanks to last-minute contributions from the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association and other auto parts industry groups, which helped sway public opinion in support of the changes. Many of those same groups are backing efforts to update the law.

Supporters to a 2020 question still face several hurdles. Among them is gathering signatures of 80,239 registered voters before a Dec. 4 deadline.

Lawmakers could also approve the changes by passing one of several bipartisan proposals to update the right to repair law, but the legislation is languishing in a committee.

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