A High-Cost, High-Stakes Clash Of Automotive Titans

In the fight over Massachusetts’ ballot Question 1, supporters and opponents alike paint dire pictures of what could happen if the other side prevails.

Backers claim a no vote would drive small mechanics out of business, and force people to spend big bucks on repairs at greedy automotive dealerships. Opponents, in turn, say a yes vote would be a massive safety risk, with incredibly sensitive personal data falling into the hands of sexual predators and other would-be wrongdoers.

A different theme emerges, however, when you look at the money funding the debate: Question 1 is really about the data we generate while driving our cars, even if we’re not aware of it — and which part of the automotive industry gets to control and monetize that data in the future.

You’d never guess this from the ads opposing Question 1, which look like scenes from a horror movie. In one, a man walks right into a home the narrator makes clear isn’t his. In another, a lone woman is stalked through an empty parking garage by a sexual predator who’s taken control of her vehicle. At the very end — after she turns to face her unseen assailant, and the screen goes black — the narrator urges: “Vote no one One. Keep your data safe.”

Those ads are part of a big-money push by auto manufacturers like GM and Toyota, who have spent more than $20 million to stop Question 1. Given the actual text of the question, they feel like a reach. Basically, Question 1 says that any vehicle that can collect driving data — and transmit it elsewhere, wirelessly — would have to store that data in an open platform, accessible through an app by drivers and mechanics.

The opposition, however, says those grim scenarios aren’t a reach at all.

“The risk here is that anyone can get access to this information,” said Conor Yunits, the spokesman for the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data. “There are no limits on how many third parties can access the information once it’s made available one time, no limits on reselling information.”

Right now, Yunits said, so-called telematics data is gathered and protected by car manufacturers. If Question 1 passes, he asserts, complete strangers could learn where your car is — and even upload code that keeps it from functioning.

“The hacking risks are enormous,” he said.

If so, you’d expect the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for digital privacy, to be sounding the alarm about Question 1’s possible passage. But Cory Doctorow, a special advisor at EFF, said he is skeptical of those warnings — which he thinks undercut the core argument the opponents are trying to make.

“If the car manufacturers’ point is that they have built mobile surveillance platforms that non-consensually harvest so much data from us that if the wrong person gets access to them, they can destroy your life, then I think that the answer should be for them to stop spying on us with our cars,” Doctorow said.

Doctorow doesn’t live in Massachusetts, but he supports Question 1. If it passes, he says, we’d learn just how intrusive telematics have already become — and drivers would get control over how technology in the vehicles they own actually gets used.

“It flies in the face of the very conception of private property to say that after you buy a thing, the manufacturer gets to tell you how to use it,” Doctorow said.

Supporters make another argument, related but distinct: If Question 1 doesn’t pass, they warn, independent mechanics will be in jeopardy.

“Twenty years ago, cars were mechanical,” said Barry Steinberg, the owner and president of Direct Tire and Auto Service. “So you hired mechanics to take them apart and put them back together, you know?”

Today, Steinberg says, vehicles have complex computer systems whose data you need to be able to access for service. Currently, that means plugging into an on-board diagnostic port located near the steering wheel. But soon, Steinberg says, all that information will be stored in the cloud instead — and if independent mechanics can’t get it, they won’t be able to work.

“They chip away at the business that’s out there, okay?” Steinberg said of the big auto manufacturers. “And they’re trying to put me out of business — and Sullivan Tire, Hogan Tire, all of us — by locking us out of the game.”

This reading of what the future holds may be a bit too bleak. The state’s existing right-to-repair law — which went on the books in 2013, after voters backed a right-to-repair ballot question the previous year — seems to mandate that independent mechanics get continued access to “telematics … information … necessary to diagnose and repair a customer’s vehicle.”

When I pressed Steinberg on that provision, he referred me to a Yes-On-One spokesman, who said they read the law differently.

Question 1’s supporters have deep pockets, as well. The Massachusetts Right to Repair Committee has received more than $15 million from auto-repair trade groups and chains, like Auto Zone and Advance Auto Parts. They’re using that money to fund an ad blitz of their own, in which plucky independent mechanics try to keep the big auto makers from taking away their customers.

“I always hated taking my car to the dealership for service,” a woman says in one. “Are they telling me the truth? Am I being overcharged? … Please, vote yes on Question One — yes on right to repair.”

Given the commercial possibilities a yes vote would unleash, those donations are a smart investment. If Question 1 passes, businesses that need telematics data for repair purposes won’t have to go through the auto makers to get it. What’s more, they’ll be able to use that data for marketing — for example, suggesting you come by for a certain part if your check-engine light comes on.

All of which makes Question 1 a telling case study in how we live now. Even when we’re not aware of it, each one of us is generating a massive amount of data. And whoever controls that data can make a lot of money — if the rules and regulations are on their side.

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