To say modern vehicles are complicated machines would be a massive understatement. As auto manufacturers continue to use more advanced construction techniques, implement more complex technologies, and employ the use of increasingly specialized repair and maintenance tools to service their vehicles, they’ve come to the conclusion that customers are no longer capable of being trusted to properly maintain and modify their own vehicles.
A lobbying group called Auto Alliance, which represents a large swath of the major auto manufacturers, is taking steps to have elements of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act reviewed in order to see if they can be applied to ban third party tinkering with their products.
Every three years, the US Copyright Office holds hearings to decide whether certain exemptions should be made from the DMCA’s section 1201, a provision that governs technological barriers created to protect copyrighted work – for example, the almost universally hated digital rights management software Apple used to take to protect its iTunes content, which typically did not protect the copyright holders and only served to make the use of the content more difficult for paying customers.
Comments submitted on behalf of manufacturers like General Motors and John Deere by the Association of Global Automakers seek to, among other things, prevent access to a vehicle’s ECU due to the system’s extensive integration into critical vehicle functions like braking, turning and throttle inputs, as they could potentially lead to ”an imbalance by which the negative consequences far outweigh any suggested benefits,” adding that an exemption for enthusiasts “leads to disastrous consequences.”
Autoblog reports that the growing concern from the industry stems around the unauthorized modification of ECU software and that coding mistakes made by third parties could put drivers at risk and potentially bring their vehicles out of compliance with emissions regulations.
Another way of interpreting their concern is that once the keys are placed in the customer’s hand, auto manufacturers have no way of knowing whether said customer will turn around and modify his or her vehicle in some dubious way, crash it, and then slap the manufacturer with a lawsuit blaming them for the problem. Additionally, by closing off the system to outside parties, it could potentially create a new revenue stream for auto manufacturers who want to become the exclusive option for performance upgrades.
Fortunately, enthusiasts do have an ally in their corner with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “It’s not a new thing to be able to repair and modify cars, it’s actually a new thing to keep people from doing it,” says Kit Walsh, a staff attorney with the EFF. “There are these specialized agencies that govern what vehicles can lawfully be used for on the road, and they have not seen fit to stop them from repairing cars.”
Moreover, aftermarket tuning devices have been on the market for many years, allowing enthusiasts to boost performance, increase fuel efficiency and customize other parameters of their cars’ computer controlled systems, and despite their wide adoption by customers, they have not led to the “disastrous consequences” that the Association of Global Automakers has warned about.
Due to the tendency for vague wording in these kinds of arguments and complex nature of the systems in question, an even greater cause for concern might be the collateral damage that would almost surely result in the passage of such restrictions. Using fear tactics and relying on ineptitude of the government officials, we’d presume, John Deere even argued that letting people modify car computer systems will result in them pirating music through the on-board entertainment system, a comment whose ridiculousness is only trumped by the sheer stupidity of the idea.
But it is fear mongering like this that green-lights litigation by law makers who’re not technological visionaries and have no comprehension of what sorts of innovation they could be preventing by implementing such restrictions.
Concerned? You should be, and the EFF wants to hear from you. “The opponents of the vehicle exemptions say that no one really cares about the restrictions they place on access to vehicle code, so the Copyright Office should deny the exemptions.” Now’s your chance to set the record straight.