Some Good News: ‘Right to Repair’ Notched a Major Election Day Win

The future of automotive repair just got brighter—and it may shine a light on your smaller gadgets, too

Photo: picture alliance/Getty Images

Voters in Massachusetts voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to amend a significant “right to repair” law, paving the way to a greener future where consumers and independent shops have more control over the maintenance of their cars.

The measure, which will require automakers to share more data about the vehicles they produce, is significant in the context of a larger fight for repair laws in the consumer tech industry. Though your iPhone may appear to have little in common with your SUV, both are machines whose inner workings are closely guarded by manufacturers. That level of control means that it’s not always possible for individuals to access the information they need to fix their equipment, resulting in costly repairs from shops that are anointed by the manufacturer, or reducing a device’s overall lifespan. When you can’t fix something that you need, you have to replace it.

And actually, there is more shared DNA between your phone and your car than you might imagine. Question 1, as the ballot measure is known, deals explicitly with data generated by a car’s “telematics systems”—that is, information about a car wirelessly communicated to a manufacturer, similar to how Apple uses diagnostic software to assess issues with your iPhone. Car manufacturers will now have to make this data available to owners and independent repair shops via a mobile app.

Advocates have characterized Question 1, which passed in an absolute landslide, as a bellwether for future right to repair laws that would more directly impact the smaller gadgets in your life.

“This is a huge precedent for the entire technology industry, and it’s not just about cars,” Kyle Wiens, the CEO of repair organization iFixit, tells Debugger.I expect many states will follow up with broad electronics right to repair bills.”

This fight has been ongoing for years. Massachusetts’ initial right to repair bill passed in 2012 and a handful of states have taken up the cause since then. (I’ve reported on it since 2016.) At its root, right to repair challenges the notion of planned obsolescence. If manufacturers control who can repair their product, and on what basis, they control the product’s entire lifespan. It complicates the very idea of ownership: You paid for the thing, so why shouldn’t you control its destiny?

Software has made all of this much trickier in recent years. When technology was a simple matter of mechanical parts, a skilled technician with the right parts could fix a device without the manufacturer’s involvement. For example, when a knob on my old air conditioner snapped off this summer, I didn’t need to track down a proprietary hunk of plastic: I stuck it back on with epoxy glue. Cars, phones, and other bits of modern technology now rely on computerized parts that can lock “unauthorized” parties out of the information they need to tinker with the hardware. If the camera lens breaks on your new iPhone 12, it’s not a simple matter of fixing the glass or replacing the part: Apple requires the device to be synced with a System Configuration app for a new camera module to operate.

This is an urgent problem. It simply is not sustainable to manufacture new phones, cars, and computers forever. Repairability means longevity. Question 1, at least, signals that people are starting to take this notion seriously, and points us toward a less destructive tomorrow.

For considerably more context on Question 1 and the future of the right to repair movement, I strongly recommend this recent feature by Lauren Goode at Wired. And for more on how the manufacturing of new consumer tech like the iPhone fits in, read this recent story about the iPhone 12 lineup from Maddie Stone on Debugger.

Co-Founder and Former Editor in Chief, OneZero at Medium

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