Have you ever heard the idea that buying something does not mean you own it, you are just indefinitely renting it? Once a quirky philosophical stance, nowadays that notion has consequences in the real world.

When you buy something, you own it and, theoretically, you should be able to do whatever you want with it. Yet in practice, things get a lot more complicated.

Currently, a number of organizations are fighting for the so-called electronics right to repair. But did you know it extends way farther than that? It actually started with the automotive industry, and this is what we are going to explore today. Is your car really yours? Surprisingly, it is not a clear-cut answer!

What is the right to repair?

In today’s world, the repairs niche suffers quite a bit. We are more eager to buy something new when the old breaks (or just gets too old) than fix it. That said, you can still opt for repair… usually.

Think of it like this – if your coffee machine breaks out of warranty, you can get it repaired wherever you see fit. You can try it yourself, or have a specialist do it. The manufacturer of the appliance should not have a say in your decision. Or to put it simply – they cannot require you to only use their repair services. However, things often play out differently.

To get technical, a general “right to repair” does not exist to apply wherever you want. Some say it is implied by the nature of ownership. And while this has rarely been an issue in the past, our world is now split on it. Why? Because the products we use are no longer just “a product”. You buy the hardware, but you also need software to use it. Here things get complicated!

Companies say that while you do own the hardware, you only license the software. Want to break your phone? Go ahead. Want to repair it? Well, that involves a lot of software tinkering as well, and that is often proprietary. It does not stop with phones either – all that also applies to cars!

Do you have the right to repair your car?

Vehicles used to be mostly hardware. You could go to any old mechanic and they could do wonders on your ride. They did not have to know programming, microscale electronics, or software diagnostics. For better or worse, this is changing.

Now Elon Musk calls his vehicles “computers on wheels”. Thanks to the EV revolution he sparked, you can apply the same description to conventional cars too. They are filled to the brim with electronics and proprietary software.

So, what happens when your vehicle’s sensors shout out “ISSUE”? You go to an authorized shop, of course! Only they can decipher what that even means, thanks to the closed source software that runs your car. At least, manufacturers want it to be that way.

What you need to know about the automotive repair rights

Because of legislation passed back in 2012, car companies have agreed to provide third parties with their diagnostic tools. That means that in theory, you do have the right to repair your car.

As you would expect, there is still a catch. Official diagnostics are available… for a hefty fee. That leaves smaller shops to rely on aftermarket tools, which may or may not work. Furthermore, your local mechanic will likely not be able to fix software problems.

This raises the question: Which problems are considered software? Here is how we can classify issues after running diagnostics:

  • Mechanical – Those would be your regular part failures. Any repair shop should be able to take care of them without too much trouble.
  • Electronic – Those have to do with the electrical system of the car, often related to sensors that talk to the software. Here you might run into repair problems if you opt for aftermarket solutions. Though on paper you can fix such issues anywhere, you may still have to rely on OEM parts.
  • Software – While some repair shops can probably handle certain software problems, the “official” way of handling them is to go to authorized shops.
  • Mixed – Such issues involve a mechanical/electrical and a software system. Here we get into murky waters. This may be the loophole for companies to go around any further legislation.

Where are the limits of the right to repair your vehicle?

Thanks to current laws, you have the right to repair mechanical and possibly electrical issues. But that may also change. If the modern trend continues, cars will become more and more like computers. How long until car manufacturers start labeling themselves as IT companies? Tesla is halfway there already.

The more vehicle repairs get tangled up with software the harder they will become. Manufacturers can complicate the process, label their software as intellectual property, and gatekeep any further repairs.

To make things worse, they can actually make a good legal case. With more complicated systems, driving safety becomes even more important. Sure, a simple battery change may not amount to much, but what if it disrupts some signals, which compromise the safety features of the software? Dress that up in more technical lingo and you have a recipe for denial of any repair rights.

Put all of this together and you can see how companies can start working towards labeling all issues as “mixed”. Meaning they would all require some sort of software calibration. Where does this leave us then?

Do you really own your car?

According to Apple, you own your iPhone, not its operating system. The tech giant is licensing it to you. In simpler terms, you are renting the software. That renders the device virtually useless on its own.

Could we be heading the same way with vehicles? Of course, you own the car, but you have no rights to the software systems that make it move. For all intents and purposes, all your car’s functions have to be rented. And repairing them? Well, that is messing with the intellectual property!

Do you think that is going to happen soon? Or does it sound a bit too far-fetched for you? To be honest, I think the future of mobility does not favor car ownership.


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