What Is Right to Repair, and How Does It Affect You?

Right to repair advocates push automakers for access to tools and manuals for at-home fixes.

Andrew Ganz | 
Apr 14, 2022 | 3 min read

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With today's computer-controlled cars, it can be difficult to diagnose problems and make repairs without access to specialized tools and closely kept knowledge. Onboard systems can tell you when there’s a malfunction or when it’s time for regular service, but reprogramming computer modules and extinguishing those dashboard maintenance reminders can be a puzzling process—if you can find out how to do it on your own.

That’s where “right to repair” comes into play. Right to repair is a shorthand expression for the idea that consumers should be able to maintain and fix the things they own without being bound to the original manufacturer for service. Advocates of this principle fight for legislation that requires manufacturers to sell replacement parts, proprietary tools, and repair manuals to do-it-yourselfers and independent repair shops. They argue that this access gives consumers more and cheaper options for repairing everything from computers to cars.

Dealerships vs. Independent Repair Shops

While some automakers make their repair documentation and special diagnostic devices available, others guard these essential tools, forcing customers to return to an authorized dealership or service center for all but the most straightforward repairs. Not only is this costly for consumers—dealership shop rates tend to be high—it’s also a roadblock for independent shops that are locked out of repairing those vehicles. The ability to get repairs done outside of a manufacturer’s franchised network becomes even more of an issue when the warranty expires.

Access to the manuals, codes, and tools critical to repairing newer cars improved after Massachusetts pioneered right-to-repair regulations for the automotive industry in 2012. Fearing a patchwork of similar-but-not-identical rules across the country, automakers signed a memorandum of understanding in 2014 agreeing to follow the Massachusetts law in all 50 states.

The Connected Car Loophole

The 2014 agreement included a carve-out exception for telematics systems, which power connected-car features like the ability to unlock or remotely start a car from a phone app. These telematics systems are also increasingly used to generate and store diagnostic trouble codes that play a key role in repairing today’s complex cars. Tesla has used this provision to block access to its diagnostic tools.

The electric car builder maintains a tight grip on its cars. It refuses to sell basic parts like motors and batteries to vehicle owners and independent shops, and it even states that it will void a vehicle’s warranty if an owner fails to install over-the-air updates in a timely manner. Tesla has even gone as far as to restrict access to its Supercharger charging network if it determines that a vehicle was damaged and not repaired to its standards.

The telematics exception made news in 2020 when Massachusetts told automakers to open access to data gleaned from those systems. Citing an inability to comply with the law and concerns over security, and Kia disabled wireless communication features in their telematics systems on cars sold in Massachusetts. Lawmakers are now trying to revise the law and delay its implementation as they grapple with the cybersecurity issues.

The right-to-repair movement got a recent boost when the Biden administration urged the Federal Trade Commission to prohibit manufacturers from designing products that cannot be serviced at home or by non-manufacturer shops. Biden’s right-to-repair push, through a July 2021 executive order, has focused largely on laptops, smartphones, and other electronic devices, which prompted tech giants like Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung, as well as tractor manufacturer John Deere, to make repair parts and manuals more accessible. Further regulatory measures regarding mandatory data access are still being considered by the courts.


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Andrew Ganz

Andrew Ganz has had cars in his blood ever since he gnawed the paint off of a diecast model as a toddler. After growing up in Dallas, Texas, he earned a journalism degree, worked in public relations for two manufacturers, and served as an editor for a luxury-lifestyle print publication and several well-known automotive websites. In his free time, Andrew loves exploring the Rocky Mountains' best back roads—when he’s not browsing ads for his next car purchase.