Automakers, parts suppliers and repair shops around the country are homed in on Massachusetts to see how the so-called "Right to Repair" drama will play out — with broad implications on all sides.
"People have flown in from all over the country to attend these meetings," said state Rep. Ted Speliotis D-Danvers, who has refereed two negotiations in the last month in a race to come up with a legislative compromise before a possible binding statewide referendum vote on the matter in November.
Auto manufacturers and a coalition of repair shops are locked in argument over how much access and at what price consumers and auto mechanics should have to the computer codes needed to diagnose and fix modern vehicles.
The state Senate gave its green light to the Right to Repair legislation last week, with Senate Minority Leader. Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, among those supporting the measure.
Repair shops say they are at a disadvantage to dealers, who have better access to codes and updates. If the codes were cheaper and more widely available, consumers wouldn't be forced to go to the more expensive dealers to get their cars fixed, said Art Kinsman, spokesman for the Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition. The coalition contends it would save vehicle owners an average of $300 to $500 per year.
On the other side, auto manufactures say they are worried their proprietary information will be compromised, which could lead to the production of low-cost, after-market knock-off parts. They also contend it would compromise electronic car locks and anti-theft devices by making security information widely available to anyone claiming to be a repairman.
Whatever happens, it will likely be significant.
"In the long run, I think if Massachusetts passes the law, you'll see more states pass it, and eventually it will become the norm," Kinsman said.
A representative for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers did not return phone calls seeking comment.
At the State House, the Senate made its intentions clear last week, passing a Right to Repair bill by voice vote that requires auto manufacturers to make all repair and diagnostic information available to consumers and repair shops, just as they would to their dealers.
"It's important for folks to have that information available and have a choice of where they have their vehicles repaired," Tarr said in an interview.
"The bill goes to great lengths to protect trade secrets; no security will be breached," Tarr added. "It was the result of a lot of work by a lot of people to reach consensus."
The House, however, has been more reluctant to dive into a vote. It has kept the bill in Speliotis' Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, and as its co-chairman, he is in the middle to trying to work out a compromise before the July deadline of submitting ballot question signatures to the secretary of state. Neither side seems particularly interested in putting the issue to popular vote, and as a result the needle is moving, albeit slowly.
"A few manufacturers are still not comfortable with the language, but each week that goes by, there is more give and take on both sides," Speliotis said. "But I'm willing to bet a compromise will not be reached until the end of June (if at all). The stakes are so high.
"The reason I'm hesitant about this is it's hard to find any (repair shop) that can't fix your car," Speliotis said. "But there are occasions where they get shut off (to information), and it could potentially be a greater problem in the future if it's not handled right."
In fact, repair shops do have access to the vast majority of diagnostic tools — just at a cost.
"Small repair shops don't have the luxury of only fixing cars they sell like the dealer does," said Kinsman, adding that it costs about $200,000 to purchase all the scanning tools needed for every manufacturer. "That gets you most of the info but not all. There are still instances where you don't have the same access as the dealers, and you don't get some updates in a timely manner."
The Massachusetts Right to Repair Coalition, meanwhile, is still gathering the signatures necessary to get its question on the ballot, but should be finished by the end of the week, Kinsman said. Although the group prefers a legislative solution, it will not hesitate to go forward with the binding referendum.
"If the bill does not contain adequate protections for consumers and give them a 100 percent true choice over where their car is fixed, we're not going to accept that," he said.
Jesse Roman may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.