BREWER, Maine — The garage at VIP Tires and Service in Brewer was filled Thursday morning with four vehicles, several technicians, buzzing tools and the smell of oil.
Wesley Luther hopped in the driver’s seat of a white 2019 Nissan NV200 that needed engine work and plugged in a scan tool allowing him to review an array of diagnostic data on airbags, engines, turn signals, steering and more.
To get a better feel for what’s wrong, he could walk over to a computer he bought himself for his work area and type in the Nissan’s license plate number plus a code provided by the scan tool to zero in on various details.
Luther is in relatively rare company. He is among a select group of certified world-class technicians. With nearly $250,000 worth of tools and VIP’s resources, he can quickly fix most vehicles and problems arriving in the garage. But dealerships and automakers do not always provide all of the wireless telematics — or real-time vehicle data — to independent shops.
“All it’s going to do is hurt the economy in the end and hurt people,” he said.
That is the argument for Maine’s “right to repair” referendum, which is Question 4 on the November ballot. It is a war between generic parts manufacturers and independent repair shops like VIP, and automakers alongside their affiliated dealerships that service vehicles as well.
If voters pass the referendum, Maine will become the second state in the U.S. after Massachusetts to require automakers to provide independent repair shops and vehicle owners with the telematics they currently give to their dealerships.
They would have to include a physical port that mechanics like Luther plug into to identify problems and offer wireless telematics covering everything from car speed to fuel consumption, idling time and braking.
Dealerships are on average 36 percent more expensive than independent repair shops for service, said Tommy Hickey, executive director of the Maine Automotive Right to Repair Coalition. The coalition has argued automakers do not share the diagnostic data with independent shops in order to keep funneling customers to affiliated locations for service, which the National Automobile Dealers Association said provide a majority of dealerships’ profits.
“Right now, you’re looking at a monopoly,” Hickey said. “If only a few shops or a few dealerships have that information, they can charge whatever they want.”
But the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, a group representing major automakers including Ford, General Motors, Toyota and Volkswagen, has cast Maine’s referendum as a “monetizable data grab from national aftermarket part manufacturers and retailers masquerading as consumer protection and support for small businesses.”
The alliance said Maine’s effort is unnecessary, as it worked with the Society of Collision Repair Specialists and Automotive Service Association to affirm in July a 2014 agreement on sharing all telematic and diagnostic data for all types of vehicles with independent shops.
A spokesperson for the alliance said automakers created a website for technicians to find repair and diagnostic information on most vehicles. Automakers also argue the right-to-repair effort could expose telematic data to hackers and reveal proprietary information.
The Maine technicians don’t buy that. Hickey noted the groups in the July agreement have opposed past right-to-repair efforts. Luther said the catch is dealers can still require independent shops to pay money for the additional data. VIP sometimes has to pay dealers anywhere from $50 to several thousands of dollars to get needed data, he said.
Maine has at least 1,600 independent repair shops, according to Hickey. They range in size from VIP Tires and Service, which has more than 60 locations in four states to make it New England’s largest privately held automotive service provider, to small garages in rural towns.
Hickey said polling has shown broad support for the referendum, and three-quarters of Massachusetts voters approved a similar ballot question in 2020. Hickey also led the Massachusetts right-to-repair campaign.
However, Massachusetts could serve as an example of the legal issues any approved measure may encounter in Maine. The automakers alliance filed a lawsuit over the Massachusetts right-to-repair law shortly after voters approved it in 2020, arguing states cannot make such laws.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration initially sided with the plaintiffs in the pending case by effectively telling manufacturers in June to not comply with the law because it conflicted with federal law. But in August, it said the law could take effect as long as telematic data is shared “from within close physical distance to the vehicle” to reduce hacking risks.
VIP Service and Tires District Manager Kenny Bridges said automakers have used “scare tactics” in Massachusetts and Maine, and Luther added hacks are rare at independent shops.
Bridges added the right-to-repair referendum also involves fairness and convenience for Mainers, giving the example of a Volkswagen owner in Madawaska needing to drive more than 200 miles to the closest dealership in Bangor.
“We just want a level playing field,” Bridges said.