WASHINGTON—To the uninitiated, "telematics" might seem like a word uttered in a science fiction movie.
But vehicle telematics—or wireless data—is expected to be front and center in 2021 in an ongoing battle to control automotive repair information.
As vehicles become more sophisticated, so to do their abilities to seamlessly and wirelessly report information to help identify just what needs fixed.
But a battle is under way between independent repair shops and original equipment manufacturers regarding who controls that data. Without access to the information, independent shops fear they will lose business.
The emerging technology is being adopted in more and more new vehicles that eventually will need service.
Vehicles these days are equipped with a feature called an on-board diagnostic, or OBD, port that allows anyone with the proper scanner to plug in and display basic repair codes that indicate what is wrong. The new wireless data approach is much more sophisticated, but also has become a legal battleground.
Wireless data already is part of many vehicles that now hit independent repair shops, but on a limited basis. Some tire pressure monitoring systems are a good example of how wireless technology is commonplace in today's vehicles. The expectation is that vehicle data systems will continue to evolve to embrace the technology. The fear of independent repairs shops is being shut out of that data.
Robert Redding, Washington representative for the Automotive Service Association, expects the topic to be dominant in 2021. The ASA represents independent repair shops.
"The big item, which has sucked the air out of the room, is vehicle data access," Redding said.
Vehicle data has been discussed frequently on Capitol Hill over time, but in more of a tangential matter as it relates to other issues such as rules regarding autonomous vehicles and privacy, for example.
But a win for the independent dealers during the November election in Massachusetts will certainly heat up the issue across the country.
Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question that puts access to vehicle data with vehicle owners instead of vehicle manufacturers. This measure will allow car owners to direct where they want to send their vehicles for repair so it's viewed as a huge battle on both sides.
So much so that both sides spent tens of millions of dollars trying to influence Massachusetts voters before the election.
And now that the measure has passed, the Alliance of Automotive Innovators, a group that represents virtually all U.S. vehicle manufacturers, already has filed action in federal court to blunt the results. Where that effort goes remains to be seen.
The alliance claims auto makers could face "impossible compliance obstacles" and the new law "makes personal driving data available to third parties with no safeguards to protect core vehicle functions and consumers' private information or physical safety," reported Automotive News, a sister publication of Rubber & Plastics News. The alliance alleges auto makers face "impossible compliance obstacles" and the move is both unconstitutional and conflicts with federal law.
The new "right-to-repair" law requires vehicle makers to share the information beginning with the 2022 model year. And that's not far away as 2022 models will start showing up next year.
The Auto Care Association has been on the front lines in pushing for passage of the new Massachusetts measure. The hope is that adoption in one state will lead to a national agreement, or legislation, that would extend vehicle data access to consumers around the country, ACA has said.
This was the case previously when auto makers agreed to share vehicle repair information with independent shops. But those past efforts did not specifically cover wireless data, which will only become more commonplace in the years ahead.
"The independent repairers, we repair cars. We don't make parts, we don't import parts, we don't plan on manufacturing parts. But we need access to vehicle data for the more technologically sophisticated vehicles in the future and we need to have a path to get there," Redding said.
Both sides spent millions on the ballot issue, and Aaron Lowe, senior vice president of regulatory and government affairs for the ACA, knows the fight is not over.
"We're in for probably a good fight," he said. "But I feel really good about our position."
Lowe estimated opponents of the measure spent about $25 million while supporters spent about $20 million to influence the vote, which ended up being 75-25 in favor of the measure. "We not just won, but kicked their butt," Lowe said.
"We saw the access to direct data becoming a huge issue in the future. The onboard diagnostic systems that we depend on to repair your cars are really being locked down. Some day, in the not do distant future, the OBD port may disappear entirely and all the data will be available wirelessly," he said.
"So we fought this battle to make sure our industry not only now can repair cars, but in the not-too-distant future," Lowe said.