Gabby Profenno restored her first car in 1977, at 17 years old, working out of her family’s garage in Freeport, and spent her teenage years learning how to fix engines, do bodywork and customize cars.
She then repaired cars as a side business until 1982, when she realized she could do the work for a living and started her own business.
These days, she does repairs, bodywork, restorations, state inspections and customizes old cars as the owner of Girl Pro Customs in Lisbon, an independent shop.
She also is among the many independent repair shop owners and car owners who say vehicle diagnostic and repair data is becoming harder to access. Profenno worries that her ability to work in this industry could be ending.
She hopes, however, that a statewide referendum on accessing vehicle data could reverse that trend.
On the Nov. 7 ballot, voters will decide on Question 4, the Automotive Right to Repair referendum. If the referendum passes, manufacturers would be required to give vehicle owners and independent shops the same access to their diagnostic tools that they give to their authorized repair shops, including software, information, capabilities, tools, parts and miscellaneous components. It also would standardize the digital platform owners and repair shops use to access this information.
Whether it passes or fails, Question 4 will affect car owners and independent car repair shops across the state. But how that impact will be felt is up for debate.
The challenges of advancing vehicle technology have snuck up on Profenno and other indie shop owners over the years.
Those advancements include changing the systems that mechanics use to obtain a car’s diagnostic data. Historically, that was extracted through a port in the car where repair technicians can plug in and pull information on things like the emissions systems, engine and gearbox. Many aftermarket companies have created devices that repair shops and owners can purchase to access to this data for different makes and models. Aside from aftermarket devices, shops can purchase individual subscriptions to access information from each manufacturer.
But now, diagnostics data is gradually advancing and moving to “telematics” – wireless diagnostic information about the vehicle’s performance and systems that is transmitted to the dealer and not stored in the vehicle.
Already, some shop owners say there are a number of specific high-end manufacturers that they aren’t able to get all the information and repair functionalities through the older system. Sukhi Singh, co-owner of Cityside by E&S Auto Repair in Scarborough, struggles getting access to Land Rover’s data. Profenno runs into a lot of issues with Subaru. Many shop owners say they cannot service Teslas.
The automotive manufacturers say they already make that wireless information accessible. In fact, The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, an industry group that represents all of the major auto manufacturers and opposes Question 4, issued a memorandum of understanding in July committing to expand access. The alliance also worked with Maine Rep. Bruce White, D-Waterville, to introduce legislation that includes nearly all of the terms in the referendum question.
But there’s one thing missing in that memorandum and proposed legislation: a standardized diagnostics database.
It’s this requirement that all the data be stored and available in one database that has the manufacturers and opponents of Question 4 worried.
They are concerned about how open access to telematics could pose cybersecurity and consumer privacy threats. They also are concerned that third parties, in bad faith, would unlock anti-theft systems or control modules to bypass federal safety and emission regulations.
Voit Ritch, the owner of Autowerkes Maine, an independent repair shop in Freeport, is urging a ‘no’ vote on Question 4 because he fears it will have a negative impact on his business and on consumers.
Ritch, whom the Press Herald connected with through the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, said he’s concerned that the standardized software database is too large of a task for an independent entity to tackle. He’s concerned that taxpayers will be facing the brunt of what will likely be a legal battle if Question 4 does pass. And he’s concerned that manufacturers will take away access to all data, telematics or not, until the legal battle comes to an end.
Ritch has previously advocated for Right to Repair movements. But this time around, he believes that Question 4 goes too far. He said he currently has no trouble accessing the data he needs to do a full repair and he doesn’t anticipate that changing.
But he does anticipate that the referendum question would negatively impact independent repair shops and consumers. He’s worried about those who would use personal data in bad faith. And he believes the consumer will end up at the dealership, no matter what.
“I have everything I need, now. Why would I take the chance of losing? I’d rather not have a question mark,” Ritch said. “I’d rather live my life the way I’m living it today – my customer calls me on the phone, their car comes in, I am able to get the information I need to fix that car, get it back to them and get them back on the road. My job is to fix the transportation problem.”
But the Right to Repair Coalition says the standardized database is the key for creating more affordable aftermarket devices. And many owners say that purchasing subscriptions from all the different manufacturers is not a financially sustainable option.
At BMW, for example, the current software to access service information costs $3,813 a year, according to its website. The integrated software for all General Motors diagnostic tools costs $4,328.
“It’s not a sustainable business model,” said Tommy Hickey, the executive director of the Right to Repair Coalition running the ‘Yes’ campaign.
It’s not sustainable for Singh or Profenno, either, who both rely on aftermarket devices.
“Are there things that I would pay for? Absolutely. Could I afford everything? No, my shop is too small,” Profenno said.
The indie shop owners say they’re not overwhelmed by issues with the data access just yet. They all feel certain, though, that it’s just a matter of time.
Consumers who own 2023 models with the newest iteration of telematics are likely still taking their vehicles to the dealers while their cars are under warranty.
Erik Lowell, owner of Duval’s Service Center in South Portland, said when warranties begin expiring in a couple of years, he expects to start seeing those customers more. Whether he is actually able to access the data and fix those advanced cars remains to be seen.
“It’s going to change the way I operate, but ultimately the burden is going to fall onto you as the vehicle owner and customer,” Lowell said. “Things are going to be drawn out longer, going to take longer to get repairs done, it’s going to be more expensive – whether I (do the repairs myself) or you have to bring your car to the dealer yourself.”
And there’s one more group of consumers who could be affected: the do-it-yourself car owners.
Jake Cyr, a Bridgton resident, restored his first car as a teenager – like Profenno, he also learned how to repair his own cars; how to do the bodywork, engine work, change the brakes, the suspensions, and customize the radios and speakers.
At the time, Cyr did that work himself because he couldn’t afford to bring it to a repair shop or purchase a new car. Over the years, that DIY spirit has developed from a necessity to a passion. Cyr has built up a fleet of cars that he’s learned to work on himself.
He hopes that Question 4 will pass so that DIY spirit can continue in Maine.
“I love that I can provide for myself – be able to take care of myself, have my hands in everything and know all the information about what I own,” Cyr said. “People think of Mainers like that – that they work hard, take care of their family and do the best with what they have.”
Jason Beaulieu has a sign to vote ‘Yes’ on the Automotive Right to Repair referendum in the window at the Hollis location for his business, Jason’s Auto Service. He’s focused on spreading the word to the customers who stop by his repair shops.
Like Lowell, he believes that this issue will have the most profound impact on consumers.
“The customer will be hit the hardest,” Beaulieu said.
Beaulieu has been in the field since he was 15 and started taking industrial arts classes. He worked his way up from an independent repair technician to a shop owner when he started his business in 2000.
In that time, he’s learned just how important a local repair shop is to the local community.
“We’re here for the consumer, we’re here to help them, we’re here to give them a service that the dealership necessarily doesn’t always give them – personal experience and someone that you come in and they know you by name,” he said.
Beaulieu’s favorite customer feedback is about how customers appreciated seeing his dog, Charlotte, run around; always seeing the same technicians at work; how well he and his employees know a customer and the history of their car.
Beaulieu believes that the Automotive Right to Repair industry will give consumers their right to choice – even if it’s choosing to get work done at the dealer.
A 2020 study from Lang Marketing found that repair costs were on average 36.2% higher at dealerships than at independent repair shops in Massachusetts, based on interviews with over 100 dealerships and indie shops.
In Maine, authorized car dealerships seem ambivalent about the ballot measure. Adam Lee, owner of Lee Auto Malls, and Tom Brown, the president of the Maine Automobile Dealers Association, both feel the referendum paints dealerships in a slightly unfair light, since dealers also have to purchase the software and can’t use the independent devices. But both say they can’t see passage of this referendum hurting dealership business.
Beaulieu believes that no matter the outcome, his business will endure. Nick, his 18-year-old son, believes that the business will still be around at the time that he might take over.
“I think we can evolve, we can do other things as independent shop owners,” Beaulieu said.