October 31, 2020

How Carmakers Are Fighting to Ban You From Working on Your Own Car

Automakers are using a law written to prevent copying DVDs and CDs to lock you out of making repairs to your own car. Their vision is dealer-only service.

Remember the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) of 1998, the law that was introduced and passed by Congress on behalf of the entertainment industry to shut down free online sharing of music and movies? You thought that was all a done deal and forgot about it, didn’t you?

Well, believe it or not, the DMCA is being used by companies to protect their digital intellectual property for the right reasons, like the rights to songs and films, to what some are calling an overreaching, like prohibiting anyone but the car dealer to work on your car.

car guy repair his own car

Crazy stuff, huh?
In cases of unintended consequences so often common with a law whose impact is not fully understand, companies have used the DMCA to cellphone service providers blocking their customers from calling competing services from the mobile phone or from developing and using software “bots” to automate repetitive tasks. And now, automakers are seeking ways to utilize the DMCA to block third parties (independent shop and home mechanics) from accessing the software that controls the vehicle.

Yes, there is an OBDII port under the steering wheel on the dash that allows for a limited amount of data to be pulled for the vehicle’s computers. Only the OEM’s shop computers can access all the data, and as cars are increasingly more controlled by computers it will be virtually impossible to diagnose a driveability issue with the complete code set.

laptop near car-engine modern car diagnostic program service

What the automakers claim is that if shops or individuals were given access to the code, they might be able to modify the code and that changing it violates the car company’s copyrights.

That could mean anyone from the tuner looking to pull a few extra horsepower out of a motor to an enterprising shop technician who spotted a bad line of code that was causing a driveability problem, and wrote a patch to fix the issue. Believe it or not, many fixes to problems come back to automakers from their own dealers’ mechanics!So how do they do it?

The DMCA prohibits the picking of electronic locks that prevent duplication of copyrighted software. Of course, what Congress had in mind were DVDs and iTunes, not the opening of software to read error codes that are causing vehicle issues.

But like a DVD or an iTune file, the code operating your car is copyrighted (and rightly so – that’s right, it’s their IP, so it should carry copyright protection. Hold tight).

But Copyright is a protection, a shield that is there to safeguard the right of the author. The car companies, in contrast, are casting their eyes on the DMCA as a sword they can use to disable third-party diagnostic tools, close down independent mechanics, and prevent customers from repairing their own vehicles, and force all service and repair business to their franchised dealerships.

For whatever reason, Congress granted the Librarian of Congress the authority to grant DMCA exemptions. A group promoting open-source technology requested an exemption to allow customers and independent mechanics to repair their vehicles without the permission of automakers. Let’s just say the car companies weren’t very happy.

General Motors, for example, argues that the ban on accessing car software is an important safety feature. “The proposed exemption presents a host of potential safety, security and regulatory concerns that proponents have not fully considered,” the automaker says.

They point out, for example, that someone could use software to disable a car’s airbag and then sell the vehicle to another customer, who would have no way of knowing the airbag wouldn’t deploy in an accident.

What? Seriously?

They could also cut the wires to the airbag and pull the bulb for the light. What is this, an Alfred Hitchcock movie? If someone wants to mess with someone else’s car a cup of sugar in the gas tank usually does the trick.

car mechanic working

But there’s good news for those of us who either a) work on our own cars or b) don’t want to pay 2x the price for the same repair at a dealership versus and independent shop. For example a printer manufacturer tried to use the DMCA to ban third-party toner cartridges, garage door opener manufacturer tried to use the DMCA to prevent third-party remote controls, but neither of them won their case.  And have you wondered why now you can take your existing cellphone to another carrier? It’s not a technological breakthrough but a law passed by Congress that forced the cell carriers to do so. Ha!

This will be an interesting case. Why the car companies have many resources, repair shops, both independent and part of a chain, do as well. And then there are the well-organized voices of millions of car enthusiasts across the country.
I don’t the car companies stand a chance.

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