Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky of Illinois has sent a letter to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) demanding it examine Washington’s role in regulating the automotive industry and consumers’ right to repair products they own.
Schakowsky is the Chairwoman of the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, which oversees the regulation of interstate commerce, commercial regulation, and consumer interests. “Consumers rely on a range of goods every day—vehicles, computers, mobile phones, appliances, and more—to conduct their work, bring their children to school, and complete countless other tasks,” she wrote in the letter, published on Wednesday. “When these goods break, consumers sometimes face limited options on where and how to make repairs.”
A specific issue addressed in Schakowsky’s letter is people’s ability to repair their own vehicles. Newer vehicles come with a wealth of on-board computers that generate reams of data. The auto industry has argued that giving people access to that data is a security risk.
In Massachusetts the auto industry spent millions of dollars on advertisements fighting a bill that would require car makers to use open-data systems in cars using telematics. One ad claimed the bill would lead to a spike in violence. “Domestic violence advocates say a sexual predator could use the data to stalk their victims. Pinpoint exactly where you are,” it said. The bill still passed with overwhelming support but the auto industry is still trying to stop it. Their new argument is that the bill is impossible to implement and unconstitutional.
In her letter, Schakowsky acknowledged the risk of granting people access to the data their cars generated. “It is critical that the Federal government ensure consumers have choice in how they repair their vehicles,” she said. “However, as vehicle technology continues to evolve, ensuring consumers’ right to repair may be complicated by the intersection of other important interests, such as cybersecurity and the impact of copyright protection and exemptions.”
She asked the GAO to investigate three issues: how federal agencies can ensure a consumer’s right to repair their vehicles while still being cyber secure, how well the auto industry is self-regulating on the issue of right-to-repair, and how competitive the repair market is.
"I think Rep. Schakowsky is asking really critical questions. What are car companies doing with the data they collect in our cars, and does that impact our security, privacy, or ability to get competitive car repair?" Nathan Proctor, the director of U.S. PIRG’s right to repair campaign, told Motherboard in an email. "Not only could a car's wireless data help elbow out repair competition, there are a lot of bad outcomes you can imagine from hooking our cars to the internet. It's time that we really got to the bottom of these questions."
The right-to-repair movement is increasingly popular in the U.S. People want to be able to easily fix their own stuff. President Joseph Biden supports the issue and has issued an executive order on it and directed the FTC to adopt a pro-right to repair platform. Companies that long attempted to maintain repair monopolies, like Apple, are starting to fold to the pressure and various repair bills are moving through Congress and state houses across the country.