Politics & Other Mistakes: Road block

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Warning: If you vote the wrong way this November, Chinese hackers will gain control of your motor vehicle. Those insidious interlopers will be able to interfere with the steering, the brakes, the accelerator — everything except the car payments. Russian hackers will have already hijacked those.

Just kidding about that last part. But the rest of the joke comes courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency whose mission is to scare people to death. Before you die, though, you’ll have a chance to vote on a referendum scheduled to appear on this fall’s ballot.

Al Diamon
This initiative would create a “Right to Repair” law in Maine that would allow vehicle owners and independent auto maintenance shops to access the computer diagnostic systems that are currently only accessible to manufacturers and their factory-authorized dealers. In other words, it would create more competition in the car repair business.

Unless you’re affiliated with Big Auto, that seems like a good thing. But the NHTSA (whose affiliation with Big Auto is the frequent subject of speculation) doesn’t seem to think so.

In mid-June, the agency sent a letter to 22 carmakers warning them not to comply with a Massachusetts law approved by voters more than two years ago that created a right-to-repair statute. That law has been tied up in federal court ever since by the car companies, which have been arguing that individual states have no authority to meddle in how much they can overcharge you to fix your transmission.

The NHTSA has raised a different argument against right-to-repair: the aforementioned hackers. “A malicious actor here or abroad could utilize such open access to remotely command vehicles to operate dangerously, including attacking multiple vehicles concurrently,” the letter read. “Vehicle crashes, injuries, or deaths are foreseeable outcomes of such a situation.”

Legal experts are undecided on how this oddball missive might affect the court case, but whatever impact it has will likely be felt in Maine, because the ballot proposal here is nearly identical to the law in the Bay State. If a judge there finds the measure unconstitutional because of the possibility it will create zombie SUVs, the Maine referendum may be rendered unenforceable, even before voters have a say.

Even though nobody in this state seems overly concerned, that’s not the case in our neighbor to the south. According to the Boston Globe, Massachusetts U.S. senators Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey have fired off a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, who oversees the NHTSA, claiming the agency “appears to favor Big Auto.” The senators went on to say the NHTSA was “circumventing the legal process, contradicting a judicial order, undermining Massachusetts voters, harming competition and hurting consumers.”

They didn’t blame the agency for causing climate change, the war in Ukraine or the questionable status of the Boston Red Sox. But there’s no reason to think it wasn’t somehow responsible for those, too.

In Maine, auto dealers were expected to spend heavily to defeat the right-to-repair referendum, but their bank accounts may now be spared. A court victory in Massachusetts would effectively gut a similar law in this state, no matter how many voters supported it. And the ominous warning from the allegedly unbiased NHTSA that our roadways could soon be terrorized by Iranian hackers playing Grand Theft Auto with real cars might be sufficient to depress support to the point where the referendum fails.

How real is this digital threat? Since I can barely manage to access my emails, analyzing the possibility of cyber-attacks by sleazy government-backed criminals is above my pay grade. But it occurs to me that if the car manufacturers can safely share data with thousands of their dealerships, many of them owned by fast-talking hucksters with expensive haircuts, there’s probably some way to do the same for local car-repair shops and shade-tree mechanics.

If I were a federal safety administrator, I’d be more worried about being creamed by a drunk driver or some jerk fiddling with his phone than being taken out by a computer geek trying to live out a sci-fi scenario from his North Korean basement.

 If you have any idea what’s causing that odd noise under my hood, email [email protected].

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