Upcoming Ruling May Have Implications for Tesla In Key State

Tesla computer technician
Image Courtesy of Tesla

A new law passed by the voters in a key state for Tesla sales could impact the automaker’s abilities to provide new vehicles with over-the-air updates. Tesla, its fans, and EV advocates in general, widely tout this ability by Tesla as a key competitive advantage the company has had over its old-fashioned, iron horse-era rivals.

In November of 2020, the citizens of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (we call our state a Commonwealth cuz we're smahtah than you) passed a law almost nobody understood then or now. Dubbed Right To Repair 2.0 by the fourteen people that cared about it passionately, it was a successful attempt by the independent folks that want to keep working on your car to protect themselves from the evils of telematics. We’ll get to the Tesla bit as soon as humanly possible.

The basic idea was that telematics were evolving into a way for automakers to do remote diagnostics for your vehicle. This is a true thing. Automakers can use telematics, which is basically a smartphone in your vehicle, to send messages to the automaker when sensors indicate things like an upcoming oil change interval, a low tire, or perhaps a low 12 Volt battery. Maybe even an EV traction battery fault. That sure would be handy to know if you were at work and the fault was detected. Maybe you could take action before it meant being towed?

On Star app
Image courtesy of GM and OnStar

The independent shops see this type of remote diagnostics going further. Perhaps the info they need to know to keep your car well maintained might only be available via telematics to the dealer and not also to them. Thus, putting them at a disadvantage when it comes to being your “total vehicle maintenance and repair provider.” It seems like a valid concern. Their lobbying and industry group got a head of steam, wrote up a bill, and amazingly, they overcame the lobbyists from automakers and dealers, and prevailed at the ballot box.

The law requires that automakers create some sort of common system with an “open platform” that anyone in the business can access to see your vehicle’s repair and maintenance alerts and codes. Thai might sound easy, but one does not exist. Rather than create the required open platform, automakers have lawyered up to argue in front of a judge that what the majority decided at the ballot box can’t possibly go forward.

Some folks on the side of making this new law passed by voters go away say that there is a big safety problem here. If we understand their argument, it goes sort of like this. ”If vehicles have telematics that can be accessed by just anyone, some hacker will get into that car’s brain, and tell it to do evil. Or worse, all the cars’ brains, and they will all turn left at 3:13 pm next Thursday.”

I don’t know about you, but if that possibility exists, why do we have this stuff at all? After all, are the hundreds of thousands of technicians employed by dealers who have this access now screened by the FBI and cleared in some way that ensures they won’t do that evil deed of such concern?

Subaru Starlink
Image courtesy of Subaru

Subaru got cold feet over this new bill and they took action. They decided that they would turn off telematics for their Massachusetts-market new vehicles . Oh, the horror. Journalists found folks who simply can’t live without telematics. My gosh, their remote start on their cell phones no longer works! Let’s pretend that remote start didn’t predate telematics by three decades. They won’t get an email reminder saying they need an oil change! Let’s pretend that I don’t get those same emails with my own Subaru that has no functioning telematics system right now. Or that the reminder that the car itself displays in the dash display isn’t enough. Or the little sticker on the top right of the windshield.

As it turns out, Subaru may have given the judge all the evidence he needs to say the law has been proven to be valid enough to stand. Then Kia did it too. And the folks who brought the lawsuit didn’t tell this to the judge. Which made him very, very angry. The Commonwealth's Attorney General is defending the bill. And she is running for governor. You know who votes? People who own cars and may want to keep using their local mechanic. You know who can’t vote? Automakers. None of whom have a single automaking plant in our Commonwealth. Not one.

The judge's ruling is expected in March. Having lived in the Commonwealth for half a century, and having studied its history as a hobby I can tell you a few things about Massachusetts. First, voter referendums have been basically ignored by the legislature and judiciary in the past. Especially ones related to cars. Second, we love compromises. We don’t want to do what's right necessarily, just what brings the least pain and makes the problem go away. My bet is the judiciary decides to kick the can down the road. I suspect the government will disregard the voters’ wishes, as they have in the past, and the powers that be will extend the implementation of the law by a few years until we all get tired of worrying about it.

If the law stands, Tesla won’t be able to use telematics on new cars in 2022 in the way it does now. “Over the air updates” are done using telematics systems. Tesla is far from the only brand that does such updates, but nobody does them with the frequency that Tesla does. Why does Massachusetts matter to Tesla? One reason is we have a lot of money here. It’s a big Tesla market and has been for a decade. Tesla retail outlets enjoy all the privileges that “dealers” do in this state. Massachusetts is also a proud ZEV state that offers state rebates on EVs to the tune of thousands of dollars. We are pro-EV in a big way. We even have more chargers per registered EV than California does.

If you want an update on this topic, set up a Google keyword alert. Watch what happens in March. By then, this new law will be almost a year and a half from having been approved by voters, and it still will not have gone into effect. Democracy at its finest.

Todays Car-o-Scope

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A text message, received will driving, is best left unanswered. When you are no long driving, it's still best left unanswered.
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