Politics & Other Mistakes: When the warning light comes on

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Motor vehicles and laws are a lot alike. They’re both complex systems that are difficult and expensive to fix.

For a prime example of the similarity between doing a brake job on your car and amending legislation to blunt unintended consequences look no further than the newly launched petition drive to place a “right-to-repair” referendum on the ballot. Independent car-repair shops are attempting to collect at least 63,000 signatures by late January to put that question before voters in 2023.

Al DiamonNearly all new vehicles come equipped with wireless transmitters that convey information about whatever might go wrong with any of the car’s operating systems. This makes it easy for a technician to identify problems and correct them, sometimes without even requiring the car to be brought into the shop.

A shining example of technology in the service of humanity.

Well, not quite all of humanity. Just that segment that owns automobile dealerships. These wireless transmissions aren’t available to independent mechanics or even to vehicle owners who might want to tinker with their engines. If your late-model SUV needs work, the only place that can do it is the dealership.

Which will charge an exorbitant fee because it has a monopoly on working with high-tech automotive stuff.

“The corporations, the car manufacturers, want to stiff arm any competition away,” Mike Higgins, who owns a Kittery repair shop, told the Portland Press Herald.

The right-to-repair law would require car manufacturers to make these computer codes available to any grease-stained wrench-wielder with a smartphone. If it passes, the fix-it business would return to the way it’s been since the days of Henry Ford, only with more beeping and booping.

Except, as previously noted, neither car repair nor laws are quite that simple.

Massachusetts held a similar referendum in 2020. The right-to-repair measure passed with 75 percent of the vote. But it still hasn’t taken effect, because the auto manufacturers took it to court arguing it was an infringement on interstate commerce. If the measure is allowed to stand, the companies claim, they’d face the potential of having to comply with differing laws in every state.

Of course, they could avoid that problem without the necessity of expensive litigation by simply making the codes available, thereby rendering new laws unnecessary. But to do so, the car industry argued in court filings, would have “negative consequences for consumer privacy, public safety, and manufacturers’ federally protected property rights.”

The corporations also claim it will take years to develop the technology to share the codes, an argument that seems questionable since most cars already share some data, and some new cars contain advanced components capable of providing all the info required.

Another complexity of both technology and law is the possibility of hacking. As a posting on the Cleantechnica.com website points out, “If your car’s computer can be accessed over the air by the manufacturer, what’s to keep Vladimir Putin’s gang of black-hat hackers from taking control of cars and making them accelerate when the brake pedal is pressed?”

That may seem like the stuff of fiction, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has argued that such a scenario isn’t so far-fetched and could mean right-to-repair is in conflict with federal car-safety statutes.

The latest in a seemingly endless series of hearings on the validity of the Massachusetts law is scheduled for this week, but there’s no telling when a U.S. District Court judge will issue a final ruling. Whatever he decides will undoubtedly have a major impact on Maine’s effort to pass a similar measure.

No matter how that decision comes down, a lawsuit in Maine is a near certainty. And in spite of the lopsided results of the Bay State referendum, big corporations on both sides can be expected to spend millions of dollars to influence the results at the ballot box. In the Massachusetts campaign, the total came to $43 million.

Suddenly, coaxing a balky carburetor back to life seems far simpler than creating a level playing field for businesses that want a share of the dollars to be made getting under your vehicle’s hood.

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