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Right to Repair law providing pre-election drama

With polls showing overwhelming support for a Right to Repair question on the Nov. 6 ballot, few argue that the measure concerning access to auto repair information is destined to pass.

What is in question, however, is what will happen to a compromise law ironed by legislators, representatives of auto manufacturers and a committee pushing the ballot question.

Question 1 on the ballot would require auto manufacturers to make all vehicles’ diagnostic, service and safety information available to independent repair shops and consumers.

The ballot question appeared unnecessary this summer after those on both sides of the issue crafted a compromise and pushed it through the legislature. Gov. Deval Patrick signed the first-in-the-nation bill into law, but not in time to remove the question from the ballot.

The deal called for various stakeholders, including the Right to Repair Committee and the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers, to work to inform voters that the ballot question is no longer needed and urging them to skip it when they vote.

The issue stayed on the back-burner until AAA Pioneer Valley, AAA Southern New England and the Massachusetts Motorcycle Association came out against the compromise in mid-October.

AAA said the deal allays some of its concerns, but does not go far enough to protect consumers and contains many loopholes. The motorcycle association complained that the law did not address its industry.

In a pre-election surprise last week, the Right to Repair Committee reversed course and began urging voters to vote yes on Question 1.

“We are now, and have always been, a ‘Yes on Question 1’ committee,” said Art Kinsman, spokesman for the Massachusetts Right to Repair Committee.

Kinsman said on the committee’s website that the coalition embarked on an outreach campaign with voters and its thousands of members to inform them about the new law. Through that campaign, the coalition found that while most were pleased with the legislature’s action, they still overwhelmingly support a yes vote on Question 1.

“For this reason, and to provide clarity to the more than 120,000 voters who signed the initiative petition and the more than 2,000 independent repairers in our coalition, we say if you choose to vote on Question 1 ... you should vote yes,” Kinsman said.

Automobile manufacturers groups responded by announcing they have no plans to drop an advertising campaign urging voters to skip the ballot question when they go to vote.

“As auto makers, we continue to live by the agreement that was forged by the legislature,” said Dan Gage, spokesman for the Alliance for Auto Manufacturers. “For us, a deal’s a deal.”

Gage said the association intends to continue a statewide advertising campaign on the radio and online reminding voters that Right to Repair is already law and urging them to skip Question 1.

“We are moving forward in a good faith effort,” Gage said.

Complicating the matter is that the new law is set to take effect Nov. 6, the same day citizens will vote on Question 1. The confusion likely means that the Legislature will have to reconcile the two proposals after the election.

There are three main differences between the ballot measure and the compromise, centering around technology, timing and enforcement.

A provision in the compromise gives auto makers until model year 2018 to comply with standardized diagnostic requirements.

The ballot question requires compliance by 2015, a deadline auto makers will have trouble meeting given that 2015 designs are already complete, Gage said.

The compromise also removes an aspect of the ballot question that requires dealers to forfeit their licenses to sell cars in Massachusetts if the parent manufacturer violates the law. Punishment under the compromised bill will likely need to come in the form of litigation.

Finally, the auto makers agreed in the compromise law to create one universal software system that contains diagnostic and repair information, as long as that protocol allows for technology upgrades in the future. The ballot measure does not allow for the upgrades, and would force some manufacturers to use outdated technology, Gage said.

The right to repair issue has been contentious nationwide, with auto manufacturers and dealerships lobbying to keep the status quo.

They argued that the change would jeopardize proprietary information, and that auto makers already make the information and tools available for purchase by anyone as the result of a 2002 national agreement.

Proponents say the change will expand options for consumers who need to get their vehicles serviced and repaired, bringing down costs.

AAA criticized the compromise, saying it does not require auto makers to share all of the information on so-called telematics, mobile communications technology that would allow some vehicle problems to be diagnosed remotely.

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