Ballot question worries Vineyard auto mechanics

Vineyard garages want a yes vote on expanded right to repair.

A flyer in Dave Pothier's Cars Unlimited supports a yes vote on expanded right to repair.

Independent automotive repair shops on Martha’s Vineyard do not want to see a no vote on state ballot Question 1, the right to repair. The ballot question revolves around telemetric software common to modern vehicles, and increasingly integral to diagnosing and repairing them. Vineyard mechanics say if a no vote succeeds, they will eventually be sidelined from repairing modern vehicles. However, a representative from Coalition for Safe and Secure Data says that’s not true, that current Massachusetts law protects independent mechanics’ access to the digital data necessary to repair modern vehicles, and that a no vote simply keeps an insecure mode of data sharing from being mandated. 

The nonprofit, nonpartisan political web encyclopedia Ballotpedia breaks down the questions as follows: “A ‘yes’ vote supports requiring manufacturers that sell vehicles with telemetrics systems in Massachusetts to equip them with a standardized open data platform, beginning with model year 2022, that vehicle owners and independent repair facilities may access to retrieve mechanical data and run diagnostics through a mobile-based application.”

“A ‘no’ vote opposes requiring vehicles, beginning with model year 2022, to be equipped with a standardized open data platform that vehicle owners and independent repair facilities may access to retrieve mechanical data and run diagnostics through a mobile-based application, thereby maintaining that vehicle owners and independent repair facilities may access mechanical and diagnostic data through a personal computer.”

Michael deBettencourt, third-generation operator of the four-generation Oak Bluffs repair shop Nelson J. deBettencourt and Sons, said, “I would vote yes.” If “no” went through, deBettencourt said, “it could really strangle us. It could really put people out of business.”

DeBettencout said when someone buys a car, “it’s not owned by the dealership, it’s owned by the person. People should be able to do what they want. This is America.”

Cheryl Noyes, who runs the office for Al Noyes Automotive in Edgartown, said a no vote “would put us out of business.”

“It’s basically to give independent shops like ourselves a fighting chance against the dealerships,” Koren Boyd, operations manager at Vineyard Haven’s Vineyard Alternative Auto, said. She advocated for a yes vote to avoid granting what she described as a repair “monopoly” to dealerships. She also said it would be unfair, “costly,” and “time-consuming” to ask Vineyarders to go off-Island consistently for repairs, and a gambit to get a lot of work done in one day. 

Jesse Conroy, president of Courtesy Motors in Vineyard Haven, said, “It’s kind of essential to vote yes if you want your vehicle taken care of on the Island.”

David Pothier, owner of Cars Unlimited in Edgartown, said he’s unsure exactly what will happen, whatever way the vote goes, but he’s advocating for a yes vote. In part, he said, he fears Vineyard motorists won’t be able to get the automotive care they need without going to an off-Island dealership.  

“Can you imagine having to go to a dealer every time your car breaks?” he asked. “Here I have a lot of the factory tools from Chrysler, Ford, GM, and Isuzu, so I mean, I have the information the dealers have. I pay dearly for it, but I have it.”

He said that information is contained in a laptop. Through that laptop, for any software updates to vehicles, he said he goes online to buy a piece of code called a token. 

“Then I go to a second website and put that token in, and that gives me permission to go to a third website, which has the software. So before I even begin on your car, it’s $111, and I’ve not even brought the car in the shop yet, I’m just getting ready to do a software update.”

Pothier said he’s unsure cost-wise and access-wise how things will change after the ballot question is decided, but he expects manufacturers will exploit any loophole in a yes vote that they are able to exploit. 

As to whether providing telemetric data to independent garages gives vehicle owners some type of extra data exposure, he said the operator of modern vehicles is always being tracked by the manufacturer and the dealer as it is, and they may even be listening to you.

“It’s just a different world with these cars,” he said. He used a smartphone as an example. If you’re having a conversation on a subject of interest with someone, suddenly “there’s the ad for what you were talking about. Is that coincidence, or are they actually listening?”

He went on to say, “They know where you are, how you drive, they know everything anyway. It’s not a secret.”

He boiled his opinion down to cost, convenience, and choice for Vineyard vehicle owners. 

“Especially here, you can’t have a problem and then tell them to go to a dealer,” he said. “You know, I bring your car in, and I charge you X amount of dollars to diagnose your car, and then go, ‘Thank you, by the way you have to go to a dealer to fix.’ I should be able to fix it — no matter what, whether it’s under warranty or not. That should be the customer’s choice, not their choice.” 

Conor Yunits, a spokesman for Coalition for Safe and Secure Data, told The Times current Massachusetts law already ensures that independent repair shops will have access to repair software, whether through OBDs (onboard diagnostic ports), essentially manual interfaces, or telemetrically (via wireless data). He added the present law requires this information to be provided by auto manufacturers through “fair and reasonable terms.” He further said, “That language is not changed by Question 1.”

“OBD ports are not going away,” he said. “Even if they went away, the existing law covers this stuff.”

Yunits said the ballot fight is not about access to information. “If this was just about sharing information, we wouldn’t be having this fight,” he said. 

What it’s about, he said, is a demand by independent mechanics for the formation of a new data platform to relay all telemetric data generated by model year 2022 vehicles. He said some of these vehicles could be delivered to the Bay State within 60 days from the ballot decision. The platform would be a cyber-security threat, he said, potentially ripe for malware and ransomware. As written, he said, the ballot initiative says “automakers can’t control access to the platform, it has to be an independent entity.” 

He said who manages the security of such a platform is in question. “And it’s on such a rushed timeline; it’s impossible to do these things,” he said. 

Yunits also said the platform would provide access to real-time location data. 

The primary funding for the yes vote is from an auto parts lobby made up of places like NAPA and O’Reilly, who want in on the data, he said. “It’s a data grab,” he said.

He admitted auto manufacturers are the lobbiers behind the coalition he works for. On one flyer from his coalition, GM, Toyota, Ford, Honda, Nissan, Kia, Subaru, BMW, and Volvo are among the major donors listed. 

Both campaigns have taken in nearly $50 million combined, according to the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Supporters have spent $16.7 million, and the opposition has spent $15.5 million, according to the data.

Some television commercials from no-vote supporters depict scenes where data gleaned in the wake of a yes vote could be harvested by predators to target people alone in their cars in places like parking garages. 

Cheryl Noyes didn’t buy into that idea. “No credence to that,” she said.

Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi Belain commented on the subject on behalf of his colleagues. 

“On behalf of the Martha’s Vineyard Police Chiefs Association,” he wrote, “we respectfully take no stand on Question 1.” Belain went on to write, “We reached out to the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association to see if the MA Chiefs of Police Association has taken a stand on Question 1 and they have not.”