Third of four stories

Question 4: Do you want to require vehicle manufacturers to standardize on-board diagnostic systems and provide remote access to those systems and mechanical data to owners and independent repair facilities?

In simpler terms, this ballot question asks whether car manufacturers should be able to select who has access to advanced technology and information needed to repair vehicles, or whether that information should be accessible to everyone.

Why is this happening now?

The referendum question is a part of a larger, national “Right to Repair” movement. Through the lens of “property rights,” supporters believe that property owners and independent technicians should have full access to information and technology to troubleshoot and repair vehicles.

Manufacturers say that technology is so advanced that it sends vehicle information continually to authorized agents who can then monitor a car’s performance and tell the owner when it’s time for scheduled maintenance or if it detects a problem, enhancing driver safety. They also argue that the technology is sophisticated, and that many independent shop operators would not know how to properly use the data, possibly damaging the car.


Question 4 is closely modeled on a law Massachusetts voters passed in 2020 with the same mission – to widen access to electronic vehicle data.

What would Question 4 do?

It would require manufacturers to give vehicle owners and independent shops the same access to their diagnostic tools that they give to their authorized repair shops, including software, information, capabilities, tools, parts and miscellaneous components. It also would standardize the digital platform owners and repair shops use to access this information.

Additionally, the measure would require car manufacturers to keep a vehicle’s on-board diagnostics system within the vehicle, rather than limiting it to a wireless program.

To make sure automakers actually follow these rules, the state would have to create an oversight board that would help create, administer and develop the diagnostic system platforms, establish regulatory standards and enforce the law.

The law would exclude owners and independent repair shops from resetting anti-theft mechanisms and other security-related electronic modules unless accessed through a specific secure data system.


What is all of this tech?

Question 4 stems from concerns about car manufacturers changing the systems that mechanics use to obtain a car’s “telematics” – wireless diagnostic information about the vehicle’s performance and systems – and the databases needed to access that information.

Up until recently, diagnostic data was typically extracted through a port on the car. The port, introduced in 1996, is effectively a small computer in a vehicle that monitors things like the emissions systems, engine and gearbox. That port is where the car gets the information it sends to your dashboard and triggers notifications like a check-engine light.

When mechanics assess a problem, they read the error codes produced by the car’s data to figure out what needs repairs and how it can be fixed through a standardized system.

Now, car manufacturers are releasing newer models with wireless systems that transmit real-time diagnostics directly to the manufacturers, authorized repair shops and dealers. That real-time access to data means manufacturers and dealers can anticipate when repairs will be needed and help owners schedule service appointments ahead of time. And unlike the old port model, telematics make it possible to wirelessly repair some of that technology, possibly forgoing a trip to the mechanic’s entirely.

Researchers from McKinsey and Co. predict that by 2030, around 95% of new vehicles sold internationally will have telematics built in, up from 50% in 2021.


How does this affect independent repair shops and do-it-yourselfers?

The Federal Trade Commission research has found that as telematics become more advanced, they will increasingly contain exclusive repair, maintenance and operational data. And if every manufacturer creates a unique system for accessing telematics data, it could be difficult for auto parts stores and repair shops to cost-effectively provide service for their customers.

Are there concerns beyond public access in Right to Repair laws?

There are some concerns with telematics systems about monopolization, sustainability and privacy:

Car manufacturers can – and some do – use telematics, via the in-car sensors, microphones, cameras and connected phones, to collect and sell personal data, according to a study from The Mozilla Foundation.

A manufacturer can send advertisements directly to an information screen in the vehicle, steering consumers to an authorized repair shop, according to a 2021 Federal Trade Commission report. They can also send bulletins warning owners about repairing cars with equipment from somewhere other than the manufacturer.


Environmentalists say passing Right to Repair laws will ease industrial waste because they will encourage people to repair their products instead of throwing them out and purchasing new ones.

Why did advocates want to get Question 4 on the ballot?

Independent repair shops were responsible for 70% of automotive repair work in 2019, according to the Auto Care Association Digital Factbook. As telematics become more popular, there is concern those indie shops and do-it-yourselfers will be left behind, and that owners will be increasingly be forced or pressured to get service and repairs from dealerships.

What does the opposition  say?

Vehicle manufacturers are not actually concerned about sharing the telematics data with independent repair shops, auto parts stores and car owners. In fact, The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry group representing all of the major auto manufacturers, issued a memorandum of understanding in July committing to expand access.

Rather, these groups object to the “vague” part of Maine’s law that requires an independent entity to make telematics information for all makes and models sold in Maine securely available in one regulated, standardized online database.


Industry associations for technology and vehicle manufacturers say they are concerned about how open access to telematics could pose cyber-security and consumer privacy threats. They are also concerned that third parties, in bad faith, would unlock anti-theft systems or control modules to bypass federal safety and emission regulations.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation says if Question 4 passes, the cybersecurity protections that manufacturers currently install in vehicles sold across Maine will need to be disabled.

Question 4 opponents introduced counter legislation in May. It would effectively adopt every measure in the referendum except the standardized database. The bill was carried over in July.

What does the federal government say?

The federal government has gone back and forth on where it stands with the automotive right to repair movement. President Biden signed an executive order in 2021 barring manufacturers from restricting owners and independent shops from repairing devices, alongside the FTC report supporting right to repair principles.

In June, though, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration told automakers to ignore Massachusetts’ 2020 automotive right-to-repair law and continue with business as usual. The agency cited similar concerns about how an open-access platform would sacrifice cybersecurity, safety from hackers and federal safety measures.


The NHTSA then shifted gears in August. Instead, the agency is advising the Massachusetts attorney general to enforce the law in a way that gives vehicle owners and independent shops access to this information “by using a short-range wireless protocols, such as via Bluetooth.”

If this passes, will repairing my car get cheaper?

It’s unknown. A 2020 study from Lang Marketing found that repair costs were on average 36.2% higher at dealerships than at independent repair shops in Massachusetts, based on interviews with over 100 dealerships and indie shops. If a standardized open-data platform is created, independent repair shops would spend less money purchasing individual diagnostic systems from each car manufacturer – potentially lowering consumer bills.

What might happen if the referendum is approved?

Maine will likely face years of legal battles if Question 4 goes into law. After 75% of Massachusetts voters ticked ‘yes’ on their ballots in November 2020, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation filed a lawsuit less than three weeks later. The case is still awaiting judgment.

Also in Massachusetts, Subaru and Kia have been disabling telematics systems, including features like emergency roadside assistance, automatic collision notification, stolen vehicle recovery and remote unlocking in some 2022 models. Some consumers say there were not notified of these changed before buying their cars.

What happens if the referendum is rejected?

A ‘no’ vote might not necessarily mean the end of this issue. After a public hearing this summer, “An Act Regarding Automotive Right to Repair” was on a long list of bills that the Legislature’s business committee chose to carry over to the next session, according to an internal memo. That means if voters choose to reject the referendum, lawmakers can still act on it in the future.

Next up: Questions 5, 6, 7 and 8

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