By Sean Reyes, Chief Marketing Officer, Recall Masters

When it comes to vehicle manufacturing, there is an implied responsibility for the safety of the vehicles produced. That’s the exact reason manufacturers issue service bulletins and notices for the smallest of items –even if they aren’t safety-related. While these defects are typically voluntary, they can also become government-mandated safety recalls issued by the NHTSA. That’s exactly how the process was intended to play out, stemming from an agreement between the federal regulators and manufacturers more than a half-century ago. In rare instances, the Federal government has had to step in to ensure consumer safety when the defect presents a grave and immediate threat. Take the Takata airbag recall as an example.

But something has caused lawmakers to question whether the system is providing all the safeguards that consumers require. Whether due to the complexity of today’s high-tech vehicles, or the dipping volume of NHTSA campaigns, local government oversight is applying more pressure on manufacturers to safeguard their constituents. What happens when auto manufacturers make decisions on a state-by-state basis? Well, there was a time when the emissions levels were different from state to state. Manufacturers were producing vehicles designed for different states. That, however, got dicey for consumers and inefficient for manufacturers. For example, a consumer brought a car in Oklahoma and then decided to move to California. If standards for emissions in California differed, the consumer could not register their vehicle in California nor pass any inspection. On the manufacturer’s side, it was a logistics nightmare keeping track of where to ship certain vehicles. As a result, manufacturers decided to make all vehicles meet the standards of the strictest state (which was California).

A push to serve in the best interest of the consumer is now taking shape in the automotive industry via Right to Repair laws. These laws were passed in states such as Massachusetts, forcing automakers to provide access to vehicle data ports, repair manuals, and more. This is nothing new, as similar laws have been passed in other countries. At first glance, it’s hard to argue against laws that allow consumers greater access to repair options, parts, and product information. However, upon close inspection, the laws challenge modern manufacturing and overlook the technological complexity of today’s vehicles.

According to an article on Wired, in 2020 voters in Massachusetts passed a law stating that automakers had to provide access to a vehicle’s computer systems. These days, modern vehicles are computers with four wheels The law, which went into effect earlier this year, triggered Subaru and Kia to disable telematics systems in vehicles sold in Massachusetts. First Subaru, then Kia followed suit. Which manufacturers are next?

What does that mean for consumers buying vehicles in Massachusetts? It means their vehicles no longer have features including remote start, emergency assistance, or automated messages when tires are low, or the vehicle needs an oil change. To me, these all seem like safety issues for those owners. Imagine being stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere and unable to use the vehicle’s manufacturer-provided emergency system.

The article outlines an example whereby a couple bought a Subaru and only later figured out that these features were disabled. Had they purchased the vehicle in a state just 1-mile away, they wouldn’t have had this issue. Automakers argue that simply providing access to the underlying technology presents a safety concern. According to a spokesman from Subaru, “This was not to comply with the law – compliance with the law at this time is impossible – but rather to avoid violating it.”

Now everyone is suing everyone. Automakers argue that the federal government should have jurisdiction over these matters, not the states. Consumers and independent shops are arguing that Subaru and Kia are misleading consumers with features that are not readily accessible to individuals in certain states. In Massachusetts, at least, dealerships are also paying the price as consumers are buying fewer vehicles because of this spat and legal action.

Regardless of the outcome, all vehicles should be safe to drive. It seems to me that federal and state legislators never bothered to consult Subaru, Kia, or any other automotive industry professional before taking this dramatic course of action. The response – disabling certain features – could also mean that vehicles are less safe for consumers to drive. In addition, manufacturers are also threatening their brand integrity by not providing drivers with the features they believed were included with the vehicle purchase. I would certainly be interested in seeing an actual sticker for a new vehicle on a dealership in Massachusetts lot to see if it actually informs these would-be car buyers that the telematics system has been disabled.

Time will tell what the final outcome will be as these lawsuits wade their way through state and federal courts. Until then, we can only hope that nothing happens to these car buyers that causes them harm due to this untenable situation, as that will simply lead to even more lawsuits.

Author: Christine Corkran

Digital Dealer