On November 3, Massachusetts voters will get to weigh in on Question 1, a proposal on the ballot that would make the data on a car’s computer available to third-party repair shops. This would change the status quo—where only dealerships are allowed to access that data—and present a big gain for proponents of the right-to-repair movement. The RTR folks argue that consumers should have the ability to fix, alter, and otherwise access the inner workings of the technology they purchase, whether that’s a car, a vacuum cleaner, or an iPhone.
This week, WIRED senior associate editor Julian Chokkattu joins us to talk about Question 1, the current state of right-to-repair legislation in the US, and what this ruling could mean for those of us who don’t live in Massachusetts. In the second half of the show, we’ll share our own stories and experiences with repairing our own gadgets and gear.
Read the text of Question 1 and the arguments for it and against it at Ballotpedia. Also see op-eds from The Boston Globe and The Boston Herald. The University of Vermont’s policy on residence hall Ethernet ports.
Mike recommends pan de muerto, which you can buy from a Mexican bakery or just bake yourself.
Julian Chokkattu can be found on Twitter @JulianChokkattu. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
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Lauren Goode: Mike.
Michael Calore: Lauren.
LG: Mike, when was the last time you had your car repaired?
MC: Well, I don't own a car, so I'm going to say 2005.
LG: What was the experience like? Did you go to an independent repair shop?
MC: I did. The car was a Dodge B150 cargo van, so I think the dealership would have just like laughed at me.
LG: You had an older car, but we're going to talk about repairs in newer cars on today's show.
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LG: Hey, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED, and I'm joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior editor Michael Calore. Hey, Mike.
LG: We're also joined by WIRED senior associate editor Julian Chokkattu, who's dialing in from New York. Hey, Julian.
Julian Chokkattu: Hello.
LG: All right. Thanks for joining me today. Today, we're talking about the right to repair. This is something that can be pretty personal to people, because a lot of us have stories about trying to get our electronics or appliances fixed. Later in the show, we're going to talk about our own repairability gripes and experiences, but first, we're going to go to Massachusetts virtually, because there's a ballot measure there that could have far-reaching consequences, so I'm going to give a quick synopsis of what's going on, and then I'll ask Mike and Julian for their takes.
Back in 2012, Massachusetts passed a law that would give car owners and independent repair shops access to mechanical information from your car's on-board diagnostics port. You used to have to go to a dealership for a lot of repairs, and now, anyone could plug a dongle into the OBD port and diagnose the problems with your car. Now, this was seen as a big win for the little guy, consumers and indie repair shops, and it was a landmark law, the first of its kind in the United States, but a lot has changed technologically since then. Cars have basically become computers on wheels, so repair coalitions started pushing a new law that would update the existing law. Now, this year, that is Question 1 on the Massachusetts ballot. It expands the kind of data that consumers and repair shops would have access to, to include wireless telematics.
MC: So telematics, what is that?
LG: Well, telematics, broadly, it can mean mileage and tire pressure and things like that, but it can also encompass a pretty significant amount of data. It can refer to location, speed, idling time, harsh acceleration or braking. It could mean a lot, and as the ballot measure is written now, it's kind of unclear what it's referring to. We now have right-to-repair advocates voting pretty much in favor of this update to the law, to keep up with the times and make sure that consumers have access to or ownership of the data from their car. But opponents of this measure, particularly this one group that's got a lot of money from the big automakers is saying, "Nope." They have a lot of concerns with this ballot measure, and this summer they unleashed, we'll just call it a FUD campaign, which we're going to talk about.
OK. I want to get your thoughts, and Mike, I'm going to go to you first because you're from Massachusetts, right?
MC: Genetically, I'm from Massachusetts, yes. I was born in Boston.
LG: OK. What's your take on this?
MC: Well, I think it is kind of interesting that the major opponents here for GM and Toyota, they have been citing safety issues as the reason why third-parties should not be able to access the data in a customer's car, so like if you took it to an independent repair shop, they wouldn't be able to access this data. You would have to go to the dealership to access this data. They're citing these weird safety and security issues, like they're saying that this could cause increases in cyberstalking or in cyber attacks. Like you can roll up next to somebody on the freeway and turn their car off wirelessly, using a hacking method. Yes, you can do that, but the actual chance of that happening is really, really slim.
Same thing with cyberstalking. Like they say that if a third-party can wirelessly access your car's data, they can find out where you live. They can find out where you work. They can see your GPS, and they can follow you around and follow you to your home. Some people have a code to open the gate to their house or a code to open their garage door stored in their car, so they don't have to carry a separate clicker for it. As the argument goes, the hacker would be able to access that, and then they'd be able to break into your home. This is why they're telling people not to vote for it, and those arguments feel pretty flimsy.
LG: Yeah. We saw that this summer when ads were released by a group called the Coalition for Safe and Secure Data. This is a coalition that's funded by the automakers that you've mentioned, and they put out a series of ads. By the way, those ads are now listed as private on YouTube because they were criticized for the ads, which showed a woman being stalked in a garage as she approached her car, or a man wirelessly entering someone's home presumably through the garage data. This is the FUD that I was getting at before, that these are concerns that are not technically impossible, but many on the repair side of the argument saw these concerns as overblown. Mike, what's the parallel between what we're seeing with this argument over cars and consumer electronics or appliances more broadly?
MC: Well, the argument that makes a little bit more sense than the cyberattack thing is the same argument that the big tech companies make when they argue against right-to-repair legislation. They say, "We can't let you fix your gadget because you might hurt yourself." Or "You'll make it vulnerable to failure or vulnerable to hacks." To a certain extent, that is a little bit true, like if you say, "I just want to replace the battery in my iPhone." Well, I'll go to the internet and I'll buy a replacement battery. I'll crack open my iPhone, I'll put the new battery in, and then that battery is like some weird off-brand and it explodes, and then I have an exploding iPhone.
That's harmful to me. It's also bad PR for the company that made the phone. Same thing with even something simple like a replacement screen. You buy a replacement screen, maybe that's not an official part, and you didn't have it officially installed, and it doesn't work exactly right, your experience using that gadget goes down, and your customer satisfaction goes down. It ends up leading to this sort of polluted market for devices and replacement parts, and companies don't like to see that.
They like to have control over those things. Also, there is a big business in repairs, so repairing things and doing those repairs yourself. You can charge whatever you want because you're locking everybody else out. It's those two things that I think are the the most interesting parallels with the broader consumer technology industry and the most interesting arguments against right-to-repair.
LG: Right. What you're describing in many cases are physical components, if someone replaces their own cracked phone screen or their own phone battery. But the argument expands quite a bit when you start to consider all the digital data that's floating around, and I think that's part of this amendment to the law that's being proposed in Massachusetts, that it's cars are transmitting more and more wireless data. Julian, I mean, this kind of seems like an inevitability, cars are just becoming computers on wheels, and so, I mean, what do you make of this, both the fact that there is a proposed amendment to the law, and the argument against it?
JC: Yeah. I mean, if you look at all the ads that they've been putting out against this, I feel like you always just have to look at the experts. Usually, in situations like this, you'll have security watchdogs claiming that this is actually bad news, this is bad for the consumer because it's going to be dangerous, and all these threats are definitely very real. And when there's actual security concerns, these organizations step up and say that. But in fact, with this ballot measure, we've had those security organizations write an op-ed to the Boston Herald to say that this isn't as big of a deal. So I think you just have to look at fact that, at the moment, we aren't having those organizations coming out and saying, "Yeah, the manufacturers are right. This is definitely a security issue." If they're saying the opposite, I'm going to go out on a limb and believe them, and not believe the GMs and Toyotas of the world that are funding the opposition.
LG: Right, and at the same time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this past July put out a letter raising concerns about the vagueness of this ballot initiative, and said that it would prohibit manufacturers from complying with cybersecurity hygiene best practices. So the NHTSA is actually not super in favor of Question 1, and warned that there could be cybersecurity problems that arise as a result of expanding this access to data on cars—even though, to your point, Julian, oftentimes it's the folks in the cybersecurity community who will be pretty outspoken about what they see as real vulnerabilities versus ones that are overblown. I spoke to a lot of people in reporting out this story that's running on WIRED.com about the Massachusetts ballot initiative, and I was surprised, because one of the sources I spoke to seemed like he would be sort of a shoo-in for a yes on Question 1, but after the NHTSA put out its letter, he was pretty swayed by that and said, "Well, I feel like it's my professional obligation to actually vote against Question 1 now." Whereas people on the right-to-repair side generally are like, "All right. This might not be the hill we want to die on, but we still feel like it's an important step in consumer repairs."
JC: Yeah. I think a lot of the pushback I did see from some, the few organizations that were not so enthused by this ballot measure, is that the timeline is just super, super short. I think the ballot measure is saying, "You have to have this compliance by 2022," and that's for the car models of 2022, so that is already been in production. Car manufacturers are already producing those vehicles, so whether they can safely produce this open standard where they can share this data to independent third-parties in a secure way, that doesn't seem that plausible, especially without rushing the process and potentially introducing other flaws. I mean, if there was one thing I'd change, I would maybe extend the deadline a little more, but overall I think it's probably a good thing for consumers. But that's the issue with this, that they might have to extend that deadline if they want to avoid some of this rushing and potentially introducing flaws in the overall process.
LG: Mike, any final words on this before we go to break?
MC: Yeah. I just want to point out that with most right-to-repair arguments, the things that advocates are arguing for is access to what's colloquially known as parts and tools, right? That's everything from the screwdrivers that you use to open up the device to the dongle that you use to plug into the car. Then, the tools can also mean software, any instruction manuals, any sort of documentation that you need in order to make use of the thing, so it's a philosophical question that consumers have to ask themselves. Like if you go out and you spend 25, 35, $45,000 on a car, and your car is generating all this information and storing it about how it's running, about how you're driving, about your habits, so should you be able to access that information?
Should you be able to look at it, to see how you're driving, how your car is operating, what those habits are? Should you be able to hand it to somebody you trust, like your local technician to do those things, or are you only allowed to have an authorized dealer look at it? That's really what this is about. It's that sort of philosophical argument that like, "I paid for this thing. I should be able to see how it's working for me."
LG: Well, early polling does suggest that the state of Massachusetts will vote overwhelmingly in favor of Question 1 this year. The state voted 87 percent in favor of the first right-to-repair law, that passed in 2012 and went into effect in 2013, so it is likely, I think at this point. that this will pass. As Julian mentioned earlier, lots of local papers have come out in support of Question 1 in Massachusetts, but I think what people are going to be looking to see is whether or not this sets a new standard for how other states might handle right-to-repair legislation. Right now, this is the only law of its kind in the United States, but around 20 states have considered right-to-repair legislation in recent years. It hasn't been a super high priority with everything else that's been going on in our world, but we may see more conversations about this in the future, and a lot of people will probably be referencing the Massachusetts law, and we'll be keeping an eye on that for WIRED.
All right. We're going to take a quick break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about our own repair dramas.
All right. Welcome back. We've talked a lot about this one case of right-to-repair in Massachusetts, but chances are, there are many smaller, more immediate repairability issues that are affecting you right now, or have affected you.
I have a story about Apple Watch, but I want to go to you guys first. Julian, tell me your repair stories. Let's call this tech support.
JC: I have been fortunate that I haven't had any super traumatic incidents. This week I thought I had to repair my coffee machine, but turns out, I just bought a bad batch of coffee beans. Thankfully, I did not have to repair it at all, but …
LG: So you were holding it wrong, is what you're saying?
JC: Basically, yeah, but I've sent cameras and laptops directly back to the manufacturer, got them repaired with no issues. The only problems that I seem to face are related to cost, which is the price of repairing some of the phones that I've tested. I once was drinking coffee, and everything seems to revolve around coffee, but I once was making coffee in a mug and I dropped the mug while I was holding the Samsung Galaxy Note 10. It was a review unit. I caught the mug before it fell, but the handle tipped right and tapped the camera module on the glass, so the glass on the camera module shattered. But the rest of the phone was fine, so I took it into a shop, and they said that because of the way the phone was designed, they couldn't just replace the glass on the camera module, they had to replace the glass and the entire back of the phone, which is $200, $250. To me, that was just like, are you kidding me?
LG: Wait, was this an authorized Samsung repair shop or was it a random shop?
JC: It was uBreakiFix, which is authorized by Samsung, but it is an independent repair company.
JC: I just thought that because so many of the price issues stem from the way these phones are designed, like if you look at iFixit's score of repairable phones, most of the modern new phones like Samsung's Galaxy Note 20 Ultra is one of the lowest scores for repairability. The Surface Duo, for example is another, a score to 2 out of 10, so a lot of these newer phones are just not that repairable, and you look at some of their top scorers, and those are all phones from several years ago, especially ones where you could just easily swap out a battery, because at the end of the day, that's one of the biggest issues that people have, that it's harder to replace batteries on a phone. That's gotten a little better lately, but I still think that repairing a phone is something everyone should be able to do very easily, and it really starts with manufacturers being able to create and produce phones that are in fact repairable and repairable-friendly.
LG: Have you taken any steps in your tech life to buy things or assemble things that are inherently more repairable?
JC: I would say my situation is unique, because I test so many random gadgets that the need for me to buy additional tech in my life is, maybe feels a little unnecessary to me, but for example, I did replace the belt on this Bissell vacuum cleaner that I bought, which I feel like was … It made me feel like an adult, let's just say that, but it's mostly because Bissell sells that available part, so I'm not sure how many of these other devices that I do buy have those parts available, but it is definitely something I am considering when I buy future parts. For example, this robot vacuum that I bought has several additional parts that you can buy from the manufacturer, so if I ever want to replace it, and it definitely seems like I have to replace it very soon, I can just go ahead and get those repairable parts to swap in instead.
LG: Mike, what about you? What's your personal experience with your gadgets and repairability?
MC: Well, whenever I think about right-to-repair, I think about my musical instruments. I've been playing guitar and bass my whole adult life, and I have all these instruments and old amplifiers. I've got some from the 1960s and 1970s. Those all are going to need maintenance like once every couple of years, right? You've got to pull the tubes out, spray them with contact cleaner, you got to repair the speakers, you got to, even like replacing the strings.
Could you imagine, every time you want to replace your guitar strings, you have to take it to an authorized Fender dealership to have your strings replaced? No, you just buy the strings. You can do it yourself, right? It's a big part of the culture of playing music, is you work on your stuff and you modify it, and everybody has a guy. I know it's a gendered term, but that's what we say like, "I need my amp fixed. Do you have a guy?" "Yeah, I got a guy."
Everybody has this personal relationship with their gear and this personal relationship with the person that we outsource our repairs to when we have to. I just look at it that way, as like that sort of cultural aspect of it is a very special part of it. I grew up replacing PCI cards in my computers and putting RAM into boards and making my own cables for my computers and stuff, and then you look at like 15 years ago or so with the ultrabook revolution. Computers started showing up sealed and glued together, just like a phone, like Julian was saying, and if you need this thing fixed, you can't fix it yourself. To me, that still feels weird, and like Julian, you still build your own computers, right?
JC: Yeah, and that's maybe a reason as to why I don't encounter so much repairability issues. Like, I don't have a MacBook I need to repair, because I built my PC. I have a mechanical keyboard that I can swap out the keys and the switches if I want. If any one part on the PC starts to fail, I can just take it out and swap it out with something else or find a way to fix it, or send it back to the manufacturer, so I think that's something that you kind of lose out with these enclosed devices. I don't see that changing anytime soon, because it's just the way the companies want to build these things.
MC: Yeah. I think 20 years ago, that was a big part of using a computer, is you had to know computers, right? You had to know how to do those things, and you knew where the RAM was because you had to replace it more often. Now that computers have just become completely ubiquitous and mainstream and boring, just like every other piece of advanced technology, they're just semi-disposable now.
LG: Yep, I remember the first time I put RAM into one of my old MacBooks, and now, I'm pretty sure you can't do that, but it was magical at the time. In general, it seems as though the computer manufacturers are erring more and more on the side of a locked down, hermetically sealed system, and then getting like mild kudos when they make small advances that let you repair things more, the way that Microsoft did with Surface laptops, for example, when it first started making Surface laptops, and then I think it was, iFixit that kept giving them an incredibly low repairability ratings. Then, one of the more recent Surface laptops that Microsoft put out, they made it slightly more repairable, and so they got some kudos for doing that, when in reality, maybe these products should just be designed that way from the start inherently, so that we can fix them or customize them. I mean, there are also environmental implications as well, which is what I encountered when I broke an Apple Watch a few years ago. I'd been wearing the Apple Watch Series 2, and I think I just nicked it against the side of a pool or something.
It got a tiny, little hairline crack in the display, and the display was no longer touch-responsive, so I took it to the Apple Store. I said, "I want to get my Apple Watch fixed, because I really liked the Apple Watch." What I learned through that process was that there's a certain type of crack that once the watch gets cracked in that manner, it's really no longer fixable. You're talking about really, really tiny components in a computer this size, and so they effectively just chuck the module. Maybe they recycle it, but they have to replace the watch.
I think, I don't remember exactly what I paid the first time around. It was probably somewhere between 300 and $350, and the repair cost was $269. I was just thinking, "It's utterly ridiculous, first of all, that I would have to pay that much for the replacement," but also, just knowing that there are millions of these little watches that are potentially ending up in landfills, I mean, it's just terrible. If I could have fixed the watch or it could have been fixed, I would have kept it probably for a couple more years, right? It would have expanded the longevity of the device.
I've fixed my own iPhones before. I tend to crack my smartphones. I dropped them. I probably sound very accident prone. I don't think I really am, but maybe I am.
MC: Yeah, you are.
LG: I've used different kits before to replace the display and what not, but then, over time, the iPhone … First, Apple started using touch ID sensors, and then it got rid of like basically any kind of front interface entirely, and then all the componentry became more integrated, and there's just, they're really complicated to fix, and that's intentional. I think in general, repairability is an important issue. It's one that we continue to cover, and it's one that I think that original manufacturers should certainly take more care around, but that's also something that's perhaps unlikely to happen when there are special interests and lots of lobbying and lots of FUD, as we've talked about, involved in these matters.
MC: Can I tell you guys my fun story? When I first started college as a freshman, this is in the early '90s at the University of Vermont, I moved into my dorm room and I saw that there was a RJ45 jack in the wall, like an ethernet jack in the wall. I was like, "Oh, cool. There's data in the room," and I'd never seen that before, so I went to the computer store next to the campus and bought a 10Base-T network card, put it in my computer, plugged the cable into the wall, and nothing worked, so I called computer services or whatever and said, "The data jack in my room doesn't work." They said, Oh, we'll turn that on for you," so they turned it on.
I had internet in my room. The other people living on my floor were like, "How did you do that?" I said, "Oh, I'll do it for you. It's really simple," so I would go down to the store, I would pay $28 for this card, install it, plug it into the wall, and then stand there in the room and make that phone call and say, "Hey, the internet in my room isn't working." I did this for like three or four people, and then one time, I made that call and they said, "Who is this? What are you doing?"
It turns out that the computer services people will come to your room and install a 10Base-T card in your computer and charge you like $65. What I was doing, by going out and buying the part and doing it for free was, it was taking business away from them, so they found me out and they instituted this new policy that if you just called up and said, "I need you to turn the …" Well, I don't know if this is a new policy or if it was a policy that was in place and they were just ignoring it, but they made it so that if you called and said, "Can you please turn on the data connection in my room?" they would ask you for like a work order number or some sort of proof that you had paid them to come and install the card, so you were not allowed to modify your own computer to work on the internet connection in your room. You had to pay them to do it for you, so it was a total racket.
LG: Then you started a side hustle and you called it, like, Mike's Friendly Repairs, and you started charging people the cost of a keg to fix an entire floor of computers.
MC: Well, at that point in my life, I didn't drink, but that would have been an appropriate payment that I did not think of.
LG: OK. All right. We're going to take another quick break, and when we come back, it's time for recommendations.
LG: All right, it's time for recommendations, and I'm not sure that anything is going to top last week's recommendation from Gilad Edelman. He simply said to make a batch of lemon wedges and keep them in your fridge.
That was quite literally his recommendation, but I think we're going to have some good ones regardless this week. Julian, let's go to you first. What is your recommendation for our listeners.
JC: Have a recipe for hot chocolate, It's the season, the weather is getting cold, and you need a nice, warm drink. My go-to has been using raw cacao powder. You put two tablespoons of it in two cups of milk. If you want to drink two cups of milk, go for it, but I usually split it with my partner. Then you add a tablespoon of honey and a half teaspoon of vanilla extract, a dash of salt, and some cayenne pepper if you want—I like the added heat, but my partner doesn't. Then, just put it on the stove, warm it up, and that's it. Give it a nice whirl and mix it all up, and you have a really nice glass of hot chocolate. I have to say that I did not come up with that myself at all. That is a recipe I found on the internet. It's from the From Scratch Fast Recipe site on the internet, so credit to them, and I hope you guys make that, because it's very delicious.
LG: Cayenne pepper in hot cocoa. Wow.
MC: Oh, yeah. Just a dash.
JC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
LG: That's pretty cool. This might actually top Gilad's recommendation. Mike, have you tried this before?
MC: I mean, not that particular recipe, but do you mean like putting chili in hot chocolate?
LG: Yeah. Yeah.
MC: Oh, yeah. It's the best. It's essential.
JC: Just don't overdo it like my first try. It was a very spicy drink.
LG: Maybe that's why your partner didn't love it?
LG: Nice. Julian, thank you so much for that recommendation.
LG: Mike, what's yours?
MC: Mine is actually, it goes quite well with what Julian just recommended, so thank you, Julian, for teeing this up for me. I'm going to recommend pan de muerto, the "bread of the dead." If you live in a part of the world that has a robust and active population of Mexicans or Mexican-Americans, you might know about holiday, the Day of the Dead. It takes place on November 1st and November 2nd every year, just after Halloween. Dia de los Muertos as we say in the United States, with the appropriate American accent.
It is a holiday for remembering the people in your family who have passed on, so your elders or brothers and sisters who have died, and it's a way of celebrating their life and celebrating their memory. The way to do this is to have a little altar in your home, make delicious drinks, maybe like some spicy hot chocolate, and eat pan de muerto. This is a sweet bread. It usually is coated with sugar, and it has like anise and orange flavoring in it. You can buy it at any Mexican grocery, pretty much from the beginning of October until this weekend, but it's everywhere right now. If you have a Mexican grocery, you can probably find it, or you can make it yourself.
It's very easy to make. It's a yeasty bread, so you have to let it rise, and the seasonings are all things that you can just buy off the shelf in any grocery. It doesn't have to be like a Mexican grocery. I would recommend either buying or making some pan de muerto and heating it up and eating it and thinking about your loved ones, and drinking some hot chocolate.
LG: I regret that I don't have a food to recommend or a drink, but maybe you can drink hot chocolate and eat pan de muerto while you're watching Ted Lasso?
MC: Oh, nice.
LG: That is my recommendation this week. Some of you might remember that a few weeks ago, I recommended Apple TV+, the company's new subscription streaming service. One of the shows on there I finally got around to watching in totality is Ted Lasso. It's a delightful program about an American football coach who gets a job managing a British soccer team, and hilarity ensues, but also the main character is delightfully optimistic. It's laugh-out-loud funny.
I really enjoyed it. I would say Ted Lasso for president, except that I already voted for president. Already sent my ballot in and very clear on who I'm voting for. My recommendation is Ted Lasso, and my next recommendation is in fact for you to vote because it's an incredibly important election. All right. That's our show. Thanks to Julian for joining us and thanks, Mike for your insights as well.
JC: Thank you for having me.
MC: And thank you for having me.
LG: Yes, and thanks to everybody for listening. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes, and we'll include links to those recipes and to the show as well. This podcast is produced by Boone Ashworth. Happy Halloween, everybody. Goodbye for now, and don't forget to vote.
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