Do You Have A Right To Repair Your Own Car?

There was a time when any mechanic or driveway hobbyist with a well-stocked toolbox and the right know-how could fix any make of car. In Massachusetts, a ballot initiative may soon make that the case again, with one key difference – mechanics will need to add a software subscription to that toolbox.

The ballot initiative is called “right to repair.” As cars’ guts have become less mechanical and more digital, diagnostic software and scanning tools are increasingly necessary for even basic repairs. Carmakers, however, have been reluctant to make these tools widely available, instead reserving full information and software for their franchised dealers. The Massachusetts initiative would require automakers to make their full suite of repair software available through a single universal interface system, to which individuals and independent mechanics could subscribe for daily, weekly, monthly or yearly fees.

Supporters of “right to repair” have gathered enough voter signatures to put the issue on the November ballot if the Legislature does not pass its own law first. A version of the bill passed in the Senate on May 17, but the measure’s fate in the House is less certain. Similar legislation has been discussed in other states, including New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, but automakers and independent repair shops see Massachusetts as the key battleground.

Proponents argue that the law would increase customer choice and lower costs through additional competition by opening the way for non-dealer repair shops to do work that only dealers can do now. Opponents say the legislation would force automakers to disclose proprietary information, potentially enabling others to duplicate their parts – a claim that is difficult to understand, since the software needed to repair existing parts would not include much of the information needed to produce new parts. The automakers and dealers’ real concern seems to be that the bill would eliminate dealers’ monopoly on certain types of repair work, cutting into their lucrative business.

The deeper issue here is what it means to own something. I wrote about this in 2010 in connection with the Library of Congress’ decision that, under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, iPhone users can legally “jailbreak” their phones in order to run non-Apple-authorized software on the devices.

Computerization has given manufacturers more ways to keep a grip on their products, and on our wallets, long after the sale. Manufacturers can easily program their devices so that even the most tech-savvy customer cannot make low-cost or do-it-yourself repairs.

Computerization has not, however, given manufacturers a greater right to do this. Once money changes hands, a product belongs exclusively to its purchaser, who ought to have complete choice over what to do with it from that point on. The law has long recognized this principle for tangible products like cars and cell phones, though consumer rights are much less clear for intangible products like software or video files, which are usually licensed under restrictive terms.

While consumers technically own the computers that are built into every modern car, without the appropriate software, they lack the ability to access the data those computers produce. This is the equivalent to putting a lock on the trunk of a new car and then telling customers that, though they own the whole car, only the dealership will have the key to unlock the trunk.

Of course, automakers have no obligation to give customers or repair shops their digital software keys for free. A “right to repair” law will not ask them to make their software available for free; it will merely require that they be willing to sell it to those who are willing to pay.

Given the complexity of modern cars, it’s unlikely that very many people would be able to fix their own vehicles even with all of the tools “right to repair” would make available. But they would no longer be forced to return to dealerships to access features of the cars they have already bought and paid for.

Massachusetts is on the right road. I hope the rest of the country follows.

About Larry M. Elkin 564 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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