The Biden administration earlier this week told auto manufacturers to ignore a 2020 law passed by voters in Massachusetts that would require them to use open standards for vehicle diagnostic data so that car owners and independent shops can access the information they need for repairs.
In a letter to the manufacturers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration declared that Massachusetts’ so-called “Right to Repair” law is preempted by the federal Safety Act because of concerns that malicious actors could utilize the law’s open access standards to remotely modify vehicles’ systems and cause crashes. The law, which was passed as a ballot measure with support from 75% of voters, had been set to go into effect beginning this month.
The administration’s concerns expressed in the letter largely echo the argument that the car industry made as it campaigned against the Massachusetts measure in 2020. Car manufacturers spent tens of millions of dollars on ads opposing the proposal, with most of the ads arguing that it would pose cybersecurity risks. In its official argument against the bill that appeared in the state voter guide, the car manufacturer-funded opposition campaign described the proposal as “a data grab by third parties who want to gather your personal vehicle information and access it remotely, including location data in real time.”
Others argued that the industry’s arguments were overblown. Jennifer King, the director of consumer privacy for the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School, told the Boston Globe at the time that the industry was engaging in “security fearmongering,” adding that “the fears that are being articulated could come true — if you build this platform with no security. But that would be really stupid.”
Ford and General Motors, both of which were among the largest donors to the opposition campaign in Massachusetts, were major donors to the Biden inaugural committee. General Motors donated $500,000 to Biden’s inaugural activities, while Ford contributed $250,000. The companies’ donations entitled them to tickets to a private event with the president and vice president.
Ford has disclosed lobbying the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the White House Office on “Issues related to vehicle connectivity and telematics,” “Issues related to data sharing and data privacy,” and “Cybersecurity,” as recently as the first quarter of this year. Among the lobbyists that Ford deployed in those meetings was their chief government affairs officer Chris Smith, who worked at the Department of Energy during the Obama administration and more recently at natural gas company Cheniere, which has multiple close ties to President Biden. In April, Smith was selected by Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm to serve on the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board.
In a statement, U.S. PIRG campaign director Nathan Proctor called the administration’s actions “incredibly frustrating.”
“The Department of Transportation had years to clarify its position on the car data rules in Massachusetts,” Proctor said. “While DOT seemed concerned about these regulations, it made no clear claim about preemption. Now, after the law is taking effect, it’s stepping in.”
“If access to the data puts my life at risk, regulators should never have permitted these systems to be on the road in the first place,” Proctor said. “It is absurd to concede to the manufacturers’ self-serving argument that monopoly access is secure, but any other sharing of data is dangerous.”
Massachusetts Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Ed Markey sent a letter to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation arguing that the decision “to give auto manufacturers a green light to ignore state law appears to favor Big Auto,” according to Reuters.
The decision will “raise questions about both the decision process and the substance of the decision by NHTSA’s leadership,” the senators wrote. The senators are also asking the agencies for information about meetings they have held on the matter with auto industry lobbyists.