WASHINGTON — To the uninitiated, "telematics" might seem like a word uttered in a science fiction movie, but vehicle telematics — or wireless data — are expected to be front and center in 2021 in an ongoing battle to control access to automotive repair information.
As vehicles become more sophisticated, so too does their ability to report information seamlessly and wirelessly to help identify what needs attention.
There's a battle shaping up pitting the independent repair trade against vehicle manufacturers regarding who controls the data generated by telematics. Without access to this information, independent shops fear they could lose business, according to trade groups representing the sector.
The emerging technology is being adopted in more and more new vehicles that eventually will need service.
Current-generation vehicles are equipped with an on-board diagnostic (OBD) port that allows anyone with the proper scanner to plug in and display basic repair codes that indicate what is wrong. The wireless data approach is much more sophisticated, but also has become a legal battleground.
Wireless data collection already is part of many vehicles that now hit independent repair shops — but on a limited basis. Tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) 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 repair shops is being shut out of that data.
Robert Redding, Washington D.C. representative for the Automotive Service Association (ASA), said he 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," Mr. Redding said.
Vehicle data access 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 trade in Massachusetts during the November election is expected to heat up the issue across the country.
Massachusetts voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question that ensures vehicle owners have access to data their vehicles generate instead of being restricted to the vehicle manufacturers and/or their affiliated dealers. This measure will allow car owners to determine whom they want to have access to their vehicles' data for repair.
The issue is seen as a battle for both sides, so much so that both sides spent tens of millions of dollars trying to influence Massachusetts voters before the election.
Now that the measure has passed, the Alliance of Automotive Innovators (AAI), a group that represents virtually all U.S. vehicle manufacturers, has filed action in federal court to blunt the results. Where that effort goes remains to be seen.
The AAI 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 to Tire Business.
The alliance claims 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 in 2021, the AAI said.
The Auto Care Association (ACA) was on the front lines in pushing for passage of the 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, the 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 become more commonplace in the years ahead.
"The independent repairers, we repair cars," Mr. Redding said. "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."
Both sides of the issue 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."
Mr. Lowe estimated opponents of the measure spent about $25 million while supporters spent about $20 million to influence the vote, which ended up 75% in favor of the measure.
"We not just won, but kicked their butt," Mr. 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 on are really being locked down," he added. "In some day, in the not too distant future, the OBD port may disappear entirely and all the data will be available wirelessly.
"So we fought this battle to make sure our industry not only now can repair cars, but in the not too distant future," Mr. Lowe said.