Whose Car Is It Anyway?

Category: Auto

Little by little, it’s become more difficult to tinker with your own car. Now automakers want to make it illegal for anyone to mess around with their creations without their permission. Actually, they’re claiming it’s already illegal, and consumer activists are lobbying the Copyright Office to restore our right to tune and tweak our cars, or simply study their inner workings. What the heck is going on?

Is It Illegal to Tinker?

What’s the Copyright Office have to do with cars? Modern cars contain many computers, all of which are driven by proprietary software. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it a crime to circumvent or defeat (crack) any method used to protect software from unauthorized inspection or modification. Automakers place such protections on the software in their cars’ computers and claim that only authorized personnel can legally access the software.

Now this doesn’t mean you change oil, spark plugs, or tires at home. But it does mean you can’t legally tweak the software that controls your car’s engine to get better mileage or more horsepower, or to see if you can improve its emission control system.

It also means that independent repair shops need automakers’ permission to work on cars, and aftermarket products that interact with cars’ computers need automakers’ permission to do so. Such permission has been widely granted through an industry-wide “memorandum of understanding,” but the MOU is not legally binding and can be revoked by an automaker at will.
auto repair and copyright

And the MOU doesn’t include the owners of cars; you can’t even look at the code that controls your fuel injector, according to automakers. Neither can security researchers who dissect software to protect everyone against bugs and vulnerabilities that hackers might exploit.

Several organizations are lobbying the Copyright Office to create an exemption to DMCA that would enable consumers to examine and modify the software in their cars without fear of prosecution or civil liability. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has an online Fight for Your Right to Repair Your Car petition you can sign. The Copyright Office will make its decision on this exemption in July.

Nothing Downloads Like a Deere…

John Deere made the funniest argument against an exemption. The farm equipment manufacturer warned the Copyright Office that if an exemption is granted, tractors and combines might be modified to download pirated music, movies, and software. Yes, really! Lawyers for John Deere also made an alarming argument in their filing. According to the company, software is so pervasive and integral to the operation of its products that farmers don’t buy tractors and own them; instead, they pay for “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle.” Stunning…

The auto industry’s response to this proposed DMCA exemption has also been entertaining. The Auto Alliance, a global trade association, argues in a filing with the Copyright Office: “The decision to employ access controls to hinder unauthorized “tinkering” with these vital computer programs is necessary in order to protect the safety and security of drivers and passengers and to reduce the level of non-compliance with regulatory standards.”

There may be programs controlling safety features, such as airbag deployment, that should be locked up. But that doesn’t require locking down everything. The proposed DMCA exemption would apply to far more products than automobiles and combines. The DMCA, as it stands now, can be used to intimidate consumers who hack the software of “smart” kitty litter boxes, coffeemakers, digital thermostats, and a myriad of other common products.

The battle being fought in the Copyright Office is over the very concept of ownership. Once you buy something, is it yours to do with as you please, or not? John Deere says it’s not your tractor; you just bought a long ride in it.

Again, I encourage all to sign the EFF's online petition to encourage the U.S. Copyright Office to restore sanity and strongly affirm the concept of ownership.

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Whose Car Is It Anyway?"

(See all 31 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

30 Apr 2015

Since the big companies run the government I don't think there will be much to stop it.The companies have been laying the stepping stones to this for a long time and we have been using and loving every one of them. so I suppose the only satisfaction we will get is to say we never saw this coming.
Personally I Thing it is just the beginning of things to come.We are not willing to say enough is enough so we loose even the ownership to ourselves just to enjoy silly toys.Very sad.
Hope articles like yours open more peoples eyes. You are doing your part. great article as usual.

Posted by:

30 Apr 2015

You have to remember the mindset of most people who _try_ to reprogram their new / nearly new cars - first, they don't know enough to know how much they don't know. 2nd, they think it's OK to sue the manufacturer for not fixing what they screw up under warranty. As far as I know, the DMCA has only been used against people in this area as a defense against a frivolous lawsuit (I broke it on purpose, you should fix it for free under warranty).

Posted by:

30 Apr 2015

Thanks for letting us know about this issue. I just signed the petition.

I see this trend as being in the same direction as stating that corporations are people. Taking away the rights that used to belong to real people and giving them to corporations and businesses.

Ridiculous that any company can say that you don't really own what you have purchased. If that's the case, they should also have the responsibility of all the repairs and maintenance as well.

Posted by:

30 Apr 2015

This article made me see red and I'm still talking to myself.
I also sent it off to a few friends, which is something I don't normally do.

Posted by:

01 May 2015

Like the engine and drive train, if you modify it, you void the warranty.

Posted by:

01 May 2015

This is BS but too true. How are they going to know if/when I tweak my car? Is it going to call home and sic the Copyright Cops on me? Possibly.

Posted by:

01 May 2015

Thanks again for bringing something like this to our attention. With what we pay for our vehicles and then to be told we don't have the right to tinker with them is absurd! Ever since the first cars, people have enjoyed working on them and customizing them. Yet today is hard to work on them and now they are telling us this. Unless this is changed, they will have a lot of people breaking these laws.

Posted by:

Lee Hamilton
01 May 2015

As a software developer (including safety critical systems in aircraft) I think that it should be possible to review what software is doing. As for user modifications it may make sense to limit modifications to safety critical systems, but if I want to tweak some function (e.g. I would love to modify the cruse control to be less aggressive at maintaining speed) or changing some operational parameters should be, the software should be somewhat open to user modification. Since I doubt that you have source code the process would be like reverse engineering the code, saving operational copy, and applying patches. If the patches did not work out, restore copy of operational code. I suspect if this was done, it would "void the warranty"

Maybe some forward thinking auto manufacturer would allow customization and provide operational code extracts and guidance.

Posted by:

Lee Hamilton
01 May 2015

[I hit post too soon by accident, could you add this to the post just submitted?]
Some method of code review for modifications should be considered - whether by the manufacturer or some car related forum.

Posted by:

John Elliot
01 May 2015

Pretty high-handed but isn't this just a progression from all the other software we buy and use every day. Those notices that none of us read when we install software all seem to give us a licence to use the software but no ownership.

It seems to me this horse has truly bolted and we should have been protesting years ago.

Posted by:

01 May 2015

The next vehicle I buy I want it without any computer devices. Bet that won't fly very well.

Posted by:

01 May 2015

How about getting all that electronics off appliances and cars and go back to the RELIABLE mechanical on off switches or temperature rheostats in ovens , Ac's etc.

Posted by:

01 May 2015

Licensing versus ownership, made all the more horrid by big Businesses being successful in the Licensing Game, eg. Microsoft, etc., and the Consumer not being able to fight this type of sale.
However, if you own the software should the owner be responsible for updates that aren't to repair defective software, eg.and algorithm update to improve fuel economy?
If this Licensing Pest gets up and running, then, a project to develop an 'Open Source' Car, funded by Crowd Funding?
Or, maybe, the in next GFC where the Taxpayer becomes the owner of Motor Venicle Companies, we change the Licensing agreement?

Posted by:

01 May 2015

I just signed the petition!!! WOW ... What a slap against all car owners and independent car repair shops!!!

I do understand, the importance of maintaining safety and security software. However, I personally would LOVE to cancel out the Air Bags! I have had the Air Bags blow up on me 3 times and the damage to me, was extensive!!! I had my seat belt on, all 3 times and did not move one bit. It was NOT necessary, for the Air Bag to deploy.

Trust me, not all of the safety factors in modern cars, are necessary. I am most worried about the "orange or black" boxes, in the newer cars, which tell the police or anyone, what happened in a car accident or that you were speeding, so on and so forth. To me, this is Big Brother watching you!!!

This is why, I signed the petition and will support EFF.

Posted by:

01 May 2015

This will result in you having to take your car to the dealership for any maintenance and repairs at additional costs. Independent mechanics will be unable to work on cars or will have to get a special license from manufacturers and these costs will be carried on to the consumer. In addition, you will not be able to save money by fixing your own car. If they are going to argue that you don't own your car then manufacturers shouldn't charge so much to buy a car since you are actually renting a car and do not physically own it. What if a manufacturer cannot fix a problem with the code but someone else is able to fix the issue. Are we to wait until the manufacturer fixes this code? Will a car become obsolete in 5 years like a lot of electronics and the manufacturer will no longer support your car and software forcing you to "upgrade" to a new car?

Posted by:

Jay Daniels
01 May 2015

Imagine running a background check on yourself(or perhaps a potential employer) only to discover that you are listed as a criminal. I see a lawsuit coming. Could be my retirement nest egg!

Posted by:

01 May 2015

Certainly there are some reasons for concern here, but there are also good reasons for some of these restrictions. Next time you are stopped next to someone in a Cummins diesel pickup who dumps coal all over your car (and in your windows) when he pulls away from the light, you'll understand. These are illegal modifications to the circuitry that controls how much unburned fuel can be emitted to the atmosphere. It is the aftermarket computer chip manufacturers who are mostly fighting these regulations. They are technically sold "for off road use only" but the majority of them end up in seriously modified rigs that are obnoxiously overpowered and used on the road only. Does they really need a thousand horsepower to drive around town?

Posted by:

Derek N
01 May 2015

Well, you know what they say: Nothing runs like a deer. But nothing smells like a John either.

Posted by:

02 May 2015

Yea, I posted about this about 2 weeks ago... To answer some of the issues brought up:

- Code examination in the case of a warranty claim doesn't work, it's easy to do (you can generate a checksum and see if it matches with what is supposed to be there), but most "programmers" make a copy of the base code so you can quickly set it back, and here the manufacturer's have the same issue that they've always had with enthusiasts: there are some that will modify, then break it, put it back and say "this broke through nothing I did and you need to fix it under warranty."
With the code you could do something like set too much timing, too little fuel, more boost... (all of which will make more power, and might get you better MPG at the same time). It's an age old problem, it's just easier now to hide it with the computer programming rather than having to reverse physical changes

- Kendro wrote "Does they really need a thousand horsepower to drive around town?" (sic)- yes, why not? There's loads of people that will pay big $$$ to have more power. In your example of a diesel, you can make big power by adding fuel though tuning (I own a cummins dodge and have it rigged up with 5 different programs, one of which adds almost 300lb-ft of torque, none "roll coal," that's just a stupid waste of fuel, and I can tell you that the truck is _much_ more pleasant to drive with the 4th and 5th tune (the most and second most powerful tune), _especially_ towing. Though I'm not actually doing it by modifying the factory tune but by intercepting the sensor and actuator signals outside of the PCM and modifying them (I'm doing is not touching the programming that they are trying to protect, but the same can be done by doing that).
Now here is the thing, I get more towing power, I get better MPG AND lower emissions.
Why didn't dodge ship it like that? I'll also kill the transmission and axles sooner (without be being careful I could kill the transmission in much less than the warranty period)... It doesn't matter, it's got 140K miles on it, it's long out of warranty and even if it wasn't I wouldn't say it was dodge's fault that they failed

- As automated/computerized controls become more powerful they can do more things, faster and more simply. If you're used to working on 70's, 80's and 90's vehicles and then go to something built in the last 10 years you'll find that they've actually become MUCH simpler under the hood. What used to be done with mechanical, vacuum and electrical (switches and actuators) means, making for a rats next of controls all over the engine bay is now gone, and it is all done through a few simple sensors and actuators. If you're comfortable with modifying programming a lot of changes/tuning that was simple with pre-'70s cars is again simple.
My "race car" (street car that does see track time) is an '87 model year, that has had most of the original "rats next" stripped and removed (saved over 60# of mess, it's MUCH easier to work on under the hood and make actual engine parts changes) and is being run by an ECM that I built and programmed. It actually has 3 microcontrollers (1- the basic ECM, 2- a separate interface module that allows me extra inputs and PWM outputs for more granular control, 3- another microcontroller similar to the first that has different code controlling a more modern computer controlled transmission), all networked together using CAN Bus (Control Area Network). I connect to all this using a bluetooth module that I modified and integrated into the whole deal, I can change most drivetrain parameters from my laptop or my Android phone from anywhere in the driveway or even in the house. I can change things in 30seconds that would have taken days a few years ago (of course, much like many other people I was hacking the original GM ecm before this), but this setup gives me a more efficient, more powerful, more controllable and more flexible setup than I could have ever had before. And this is the kind of thing modern PCM controls give you on a lot of newer cars. This is also where I'm worried that the goverment will decide to side with the manufacturers, you could also mess up emissions and safety controls just as quickly.

- Obviously I'm against this, but it's not because I'm one of those enthusiasts that some of you don't understand that just needs to go faster (yes, that is one of the thing that drives me to do this, but that's not why I am against this). I AM AGAINST THIS because this is just another move that will stifle innovation in this country. I do not feel that _everyone_ needs to be protected from themselves (and honestly, the price of admission WRT to knowledge is fairly high here that should prevent many of the arguments that people have against allowing this kind of access), but more so, that protection, and the limitations placed on this and similar technologies is stifling creative thinking, and in the long run our country's ability to compete and survive in the modern world. I am continually frustrated with how hard it is to find other people that know some of this stuff in real detail, or how hard it is to find someone that knows how to deal with the things that I haven't figured out, and then even more so, when I want to do some of this work, I can't get parts here, often it's easiest to just get on ebay and have someone send me the small bits of electronics... from China or other overseas sources that do have people that are knowledgeable how to build and modify these things. They're just not made here, designed here, nothing.

Posted by:

05 May 2015

As I sit here contemplating what my next car is going to be, I realize that I don't have much use nor care for all of the electronic driver's aides that are stuffed in the new crop of cars. In the extreme case is the 'autonomous' vehicles. It is becoming more apparent that today's younger drivers are in it to solely get from point-A-to-Point-B and don't care one iota what could possibly be "under the hood"! JD Power automotive statistics are beginning to show that the most troublesome/problematic areas are now the electronic modules inside the car.
What I want (but can't get) is a modular car that I can build like I build my own computers with the subsystems that I would like to build from.
Yet, this has always been the difference between a WindowsPC and an ApplePC. And, unfortunately, Apple is winning this competition, as the simpler American cars (such as the muscle cars) are losing to the Earopean/Asian brands that even park your car for you! Apparently, We are not in Kansas anymore!

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