More than 70,000 Mainers have reportedly signed a petition to put on the ballot in November an initiative that would open some diagnostic data to independent auto repair shops.

Mike Higgins of Mike Higgins Auto adds power steering fluid to a vehicle while working in his garage in Kittery last summer. A citizens’ initiative that would open certain types of vehicle diagnostic data to independent Maine auto repair shops may head to voters later this year. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

That the required number has been secured before the deadline (Jan. 26) is unsurprising. There’s an immediacy and a hominess to this initiative, which broadly appeals to Mainers’ collective sense of order, thrift and independence.

“I don’t make my living being involved in issues like this, but it seems like it’s been fairly frictionless getting the public support,” Tim Winkeler, president of Auburn-based VIP Tires and Service and one of the biggest champions of the measure in Maine, said this week.

It’s not hard for any of us to think about our local independent mechanic and see the unfolding vista as they must see it; new vehicles increasingly beaming “telematic” or computer chip-gleaned information back to their manufacturers – and only to their manufacturers – leading to a fearsome future in which the only bar in town for auto repair work is the dealership associated with your car’s make (that is, if it’s in town).

Efforts to rule this out should be done by legislation; as demonstrated by the response to an undertaking by John Deere earlier this month – a “voluntary private arrangement” to share software locks and other information in the form of a memorandum of understanding with an agricultural lobbying group – a company-by-company solution is neither dependable, credible, nor does it lend itself to a level playing field. Notwithstanding Deere’s size and dominance, such a commitment represents little more than a gesture toward a reality the company understands to be in popular demand.

But while it should be a matter for legislators, the terms are so complex and contentious that there’s a good argument for it to be done by federal legislation rather than at the state level.

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Massachusetts offers a cautionary tale. A global group, the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, has been aggressively fighting a similar ballot measure since 2020, when a staggering 75% of voters in the state waved it forward.

In New York, new legislation will soon require certain tech manufacturers to hand over repair-related information. The bill, which exempts vehicles, was significantly weakened by amendments demanded by insistent parties that did not wish to see it passed.

Companies are going to work in their own interests. Opposition to the right-to-repair movement comes down to protecting profit. One of the few times it doesn’t is when an opponent suggests that there’s a risk to safety – that a Tesla dealership mechanic is uniquely placed to do the correct work on a Tesla, for example, and nobody else should try it.

Consumers deserve better. Specifically, they deserve a regulated market in which alternatives are available. Kate Kahn, a spokesperson for the Maine Right to Repair Coalition, put it simply this week: “This issue is about choice. Consumers want the ability to choose where to take their cars or trucks to be repaired.”

Unless we get the information out there, that choice won’t exist.

In 2021, under the title “Promoting Competition in the American Economy,” President Biden instructed the Federal Trade Commission to develop new right-to-repair rules. The FTC has been telegraphing a “crackdown” stance on the matter, but meaningful federal regulation or legislation hasn’t been forthcoming.

What recent years tell us is that the piecemeal state-level approach creates hardship, squabbling and legal expenses. Now companies like John Deere are acting like they’ve helpfully beaten regulators to the punch; that’s not nearly good enough.


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