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The right-to-repair movement has even bigger plans for 2021

iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens comes on the Source Code Podcast to talk cars, iPhones, repairs and more.

Car repair

A new car-repair ballot measure in Massachusetts could be the beginning of a slew of right-to-repair laws in the next year.

A lot of races in the 2020 election were close, but one important one wasn't: Question 1 in Massachusetts, which "allows car owners to access and share data generated by the operation of the vehicle with independent repair shops." It's basically right-to-repair legislation and it passed with just shy of 75% of the vote.

Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, has been at the front of the right-to-repair fight for years, working across industries to make it easier for people to fix their own stuff and for mechanics and repair professionals to keep working. He was thrilled to see Question 1 pass by such a wide margin and is hopeful that it's a sign of good things to come.

Wiens came on this week's Source Code Podcast to talk about the history of the right-to-repair fight, why more progress has been made with the automotive industry than anywhere else, and why he's hopeful to see broader, electronics-focused bills pass next year.

Below are excerpts from our interview, edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Tell me a little about the history of right-to-repair legislation.

Really it goes back the '90s, when electronics started moving into all of the products that we have. As a result, the assumption that we've been able to repair everything has been diminished. So, in reaction to this, Massachusetts passed a ballot initiative in 2012 for cars that said: If you want to be able to fix your own car, you want to be able to take it to a local mechanic, the manufacturers cannot stop you. They have to provide the information, parts and tools that you need.

That kicked off a wave of broader electronics right-to-repair legislation, where, iFixit and others have been trying to get that passed ever since. And we've gotten very close, but it hasn't passed yet.

There are two competing things going on here, right? On the one hand, you have this fight to make things more repairable, in cars and across the electronics industry. And then on the other side, you have the electronics industry, which seems to resolutely make things less repairable over time. That is the clear trend that this whole industry is on. Is that fair?

I think there are signs that maybe that is starting to reverse, but certainly there has been a trend toward making things thinner, gluing batteries and stopping making service manuals available. The default used to be: Of course you could fix everything! The Apple II came with the board schematic for the computer, so Apple has done this [in the past].

On the other hand, the automotive world really hasn't changed that much. Cars are still fixable, independent mechanics continue to thrive. And so that really shows the difference between a regulated environment that has rules in place to protect your repair rights and the unregulated environment that we have in the electronics world.

Before we get into the legislation, make the case against yourself. What is the case that the electronics industry makes for making things hard to repair?

I mean, one argument is that in order to accomplish the very thin form factors that we have, you have to make things very thin, [and] it's not possible to make a phone as durable and thin as consumers demand and maintain upgradability and repairability. And so I have been accused of standing in the way of progress. Of course, this is just inevitable technical progress! The headphone jack is an element of the past! We don't need to drag the past into the future, let's invent our new wireless future!

So that that is one argument. Another argument that Apple has made is that if you allow independents to repair things, it will introduce security vulnerabilities. They famously told a legislator in Nebraska that if Nebraska passed right-to-repair it would turn the state into a mecca for hackers. And that was the argument that was used in Massachusetts ... it was all about security of automobiles.

I'll just lay my own cards on the table: the security argument of that makes absolutely no sense to me. But there is something to the first part of that, that there are design trade-offs that these companies would have to make in order to make things more repairable, that go against what consumers say they want. Is there any merit to that argument that you see?

So there is a sliver of merit to it. Of course there are design trade-offs, right? Designing a modern electronic gizmo is hard. You have to deal with thermal factors, you have battery life to worry about, you have what we call torsional rigidity, which is how stiff the frame feels, you have drop testing, you have waterproofing, you have all these objectives that you're trying to meet. And so you have to decide if you also want to push the designers to achieve repairability.

Anytime you glue something together, it's easier to accomplish a lot of things. We took the Apple Watch to a master watchmaker, and we showed him the Apple Watch design. And he laughed at it. He said, "This is so amateur." He was just shocked that they that they glued the the screen onto the thing. And he's like, "Rolex would never ever do that." They're going to accomplish the same thin form factor, they're going to accomplish the same level of waterproofing, the same everything else, but they're going to do it in what is a more difficult manufacturing process.

I like to think of glue as the lazy approach. It is absolutely possible to accomplish an upgradeable, repairable product in the same form factor. You don't have to sacrifice thinness for serviceability. The perfect proof to this point is Microsoft's latest redesign of the Surface Laptop. The Surface Laptop was the worst-scoring laptop that we had ever scored on our repairability score, which goes from one to 10. One is almost impossible to fix, 10 is very easy to fix. The Surface Laptop got a zero.

So Microsoft, from the Surface Laptop 2 to the 3, they redesigned the internals of the product and they made it repairable. We rated the latest Surface Laptop a five out of 10 on repairability, which is the biggest single point jump that we have seen in any product generation. But the key is the external form factor of the product is completely unchanged. It's the same weight, it's the same thickness, it's the same aesthetics, they didn't change anything on the outside; they had to re-architect the inside to accomplish it. This proves the point that you can have forward progress, you can have these cutting-edge form factors, and have a serviceable product.

So let's talk about Massachusetts. I actually don't know any of the history of the legislation that came up this year. Where did this come from?

Automotive right-to-repair legislation in the United States goes back to the 1970s. The Clean Air Act actually required the automakers make information around the emission system available to independents, so that they could keep the emission systems operating. But as computers made it [into] the cars and things got more sophisticated, the car manufacturers started locking mechanics out. So in 2012, Massachusetts passed a ballot initiative, which was Question 1 back then, that said, "Hey, automakers, you have to use standardized diagnostic interfaces on these cars and make that available to independents and consumers." After that, the car manufacturers agreed to apply the Massachusetts law nationwide. Every carmaker except Tesla agreed to apply the Massachusetts law nationwide.

So now, fast forward to 2020. What is starting to happen is 90% of 2020 model year cars come with a cellular modem in the car, and they are sending diagnostic information — maybe information on whether your oil needs to be changed, if there's an error code — they're sending that directly to the manufacturer, the manufacturer tells your local dealer and then your dealer calls you up and says, "Hey, you want to come in for an oil change? We've got a slot tomorrow at 11." Well, that's great service. But what that does is that cuts out competition from your local repair shops. And so that's what the Massachusetts 2020 ballot initiative was about. This is Question 1, and it said, "Do you want to make sure that the wireless repair information that's being sent from your car is available to independents as well as the manufacturer?"

Why did the old rule not apply anymore?

Because the old rule was a wired diagnostic interface. So if you plug into the car, you still have access to that information. But the manufacturers, everything they're doing going forward is all going to be wireless. And that's how Teslas work. Tesla is constantly sending updates to your car.

Was that deliberate from the car industry, to build these new systems in such a way that they get around these systems? Or was it just an accident of technology that the old rules no longer apply?

I don't know. We talk about planned obsolescence, which is this idea that the manufacturer[s] can get together in a smoke-filled room and they plot and scheme and they build a death clock into your device. They're like, "We're gonna make your printer print precisely 5,000 pages, and then it's gonna stop." And the problem with planned obsolescence is that you can't prove it. No one has the Nixon tapes for the iPod's battery.

So I don't know. I don't know if it's intentional or if it's a side effect. In many cases, manufacturers just don't have as a priority supporting the independent repair shops, so they build their system, and as an incidental effect of the way that they're each designing a closed system, it locks mechanics out.

Was the fight in Massachusetts one that everybody expected to win, because they had won such a similar fight in 2012? How tense was the fight here?

If money was not a factor, if it was purely a measure on the ballot with no ads in play, then the expectation would be that it would pass. The first bill, back in 2012, passed with 87% of the popular vote. This is a common sense issue. I like to say all humans are in favor of right-to-repair, it's only these big corporations that don't like it. The problem is that once Question 1 got on the ballot this year, the automakers decided to spend $20 million, which was unprecedented in Massachusetts, to stop it.

And it was looking to be effective. And so the the proponents — the local mechanics, and AutoZone and Napa and the folks who were supporting this — they ponied up a matching $20 million to support it. And that sort of shored things up, and they basically canceled each other out. And I think we got what would have maybe happened if there hadn't been much money in, which is that the initiative passed with 75% of the popular vote.

What does this ballot measure passing mean for the rest of the right-to-repair movement? Because like you said, we passed one of these in 2012, and yet I can't repair my own iPhone.

What's happened is there has been more money on the automotive side of this than there has been on the electronic side. And so the sort of ragtag group of freedom fighters fighting for your right to be able to fix your iPhone, we have been working on state legislation without a large amount of financial funding. We don't have the money to do a ballot initiative like they did in Massachusetts, so we're going [the] state legislature route.

Is that just because there's no equivalent to AutoZone and Pep Boys to put a lot of money toward this industry?

Yeah, pretty much. The equivalent is like, Best Buy and Geek Squad. And Best Buy has significant contracts with Apple that they're afraid of screwing up.

What you have seen over the last couple decades is because there has not been representation to defend the industry, you have an industry like television repair. There used to be a television repair shop in every neighborhood in America and there isn't now. The reason is because, in the early '90s, the television manufacturers stopped making the schematics and parts available to the independents. The independents were not organized and couldn't defend themselves, so they lost and their industry just went away. And that certainly could happen with the cell phone repair industry now. We have cell phone repair shops in every neighborhood in America now. Will we in five years, 10 years? I don't know. Maybe not if we don't pass legislation to help them out.

What's the closest you've gotten on that front? I remember there being one attempt in New York a couple years ago that had a real chance.

There have been a number of very close calls. This year, over 20 different states introduced right-to-repair bills in January and it was looking very promising. It was looking like there was a good possibility, in Massachusetts and elsewhere, that it was going to pass. And then COVID hit and everything stopped.

All state legislative progress stopped. And now, we kind of have to start over again next year. But we're very hopeful. There's a lot of states that are optimistic, they're talking about it. The Democratic Party added right-to-repair for agriculture to their core party platform. And you have a lot of Republicans and a lot of states that are also very motivated to push for this. So we're optimistic about next year.

Is the move to do it one industry at a time? Agriculture is an interesting one, because people want to fix their own tractors. That's an easy one to think about. But is there ever a version of broad, federal right-to-repair legislation that will exist? Is that even a thing?

Yeah, from a principled perspective, it should be the same, right? There is no fundamental difference between the challenges that the farmers are having and the challenges that independent mechanics in Massachusetts are having, or the challenges that we're having like with Apple pairing cameras to iPhones. It is fundamentally the same set of monopolistic tactics, it's the same technical solution. So passing a different law for different industries isn't really needed. It's really just a question of: Do we have the political will to pass something that is broad?

Europe is going to do it. It's just a matter of time. They want to update their energy label to do this. Starting Jan. 1, all smartphones and laptops in France will have a repairability rating on the product at retail before you buy it. It's similar to the iFixit rating, it's one to 10. So you can look and say, "Hey, this laptop [is a] seven, this one's a three, I'm gonna spend a little bit more for the seven."

It's very exciting and all the manufacturers are paying attention. It's probably going to start driving device designs, I would expect, once people see what consumer purchasing behavior is. The criticism that I've heard of this in Europe is, "Well, we'd prefer if it wasn't just France doing it, we want all of Europe to do this." And that really is the direction that they're going.

In the U.S, if we have 20 bills next year, do you need all 20 of those to pass to make meaningful progress?

No, we just need one. After Massachusetts passed, the automakers agreed to apply the Massachusetts law nationwide, because they didn't want a patchwork of laws. And the repair folks didn't want a patchwork of laws either.

Is there ever going to be one of the big tech companies who throws in with you guys? Is Microsoft going to say, you know, "We'll sell more Surface Laptops if this works, so we're gonna throw $20 million at trying to get one of these passed?"

That's a great question. I think you should ask them that. I would love to have them.

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