Unfettered Access To Telematics Is Dangerous And Illegal: NHTSA

America’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has written to 22 vehicle manufacturers reminding them of their obligations under the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act, in light of a particular right-to-repair state law that the agency believes poses significant safety concerns.

The Massachusetts Data Access Law requires open and remote access to vehicle telematics, but the NHTSA says this conflicts with the federal Safety Act which therefore takes precedence. The agency added that it expects vehicle manufacturers to fully comply with their federal safety obligations.

According to the NHTSA, open remote access to vehicle telematics, which is required by the Massachusetts state law, specifically entails the ability to send commands. However, this access allows the manipulation of systems, including safety-critical functions such as steering, acceleration, and braking, as well as equipment required by Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards such as airbags and electronic stability control.

“A malicious actor here or abroad could use open access to remotely command vehicles to operate dangerously, including attacking multiple vehicles concurrently,” the agency wrote. “Vehicle crashes, injuries, or deaths are foreseeable outcomes of such a situation. Vehicle manufacturers appear to recognise that vehicles with the open remote access telematics required by the Data Access Law would contain a safety defect. Federal law does not allow a manufacturer to sell vehicles that it knows contain a safety defect.

“Furthermore, as you are aware, the Safety Act imposes an affirmative obligation on vehicle manufacturers to initiate a recall of vehicles that contain a safety defect. Given the serious safety risks posed by the Data Access Law, taking action to open remote access to vehicles’ telematics units in accordance with that law, which requires communication pathways to vehicle control systems, would conflict with your obligations under the Safety Act.”

The NHTSA said it is aware that certain vehicle manufacturers have stated an intent to disable vehicle telematics, presumably to avoid the application of the Data Access Law to their vehicles.

“This measure has its own adverse impacts on safety,” the NHTSA said. “For example, telematics-based safety features could facilitate better emergency response in the event of a vehicle crash. Telematics data can also be an important source of information for safety oversight and field performance monitoring by the authorities and vehicle manufacturers.”

The NHTSA says it often uses telematics data in its investigations, and the inability to obtain this data from vehicles undermines the agency’s ability to fully examine safety-related issues. Additionally, some vehicle manufacturers can correct safety problems by remedying recalls through vehicle telematics, which will be lost if those systems are disabled.

While the NHTSA says it believes in the importance of consumers having the right to choose where their vehicles are serviced and repaired, it adds that “consumers must be afforded choice in a manner that does not pose an unreasonable risk to vehicle safety.”