New Copyright Law May Make It Illegal for Drivers to Work on Their Vehicle

Over the last few decades, car performance and capabilities have become more and more linked with electronic control units (ECU). The movement towards ECUs, of course, has been the product of increasingly stringent emissions laws, which  require sophisticated control schemes to regulate the air/fuel mixture in order to prevent pollution.

mechanic2Today, ECUs have expanded in their responsibilities and have taken over much of the engine’s responsibilities. Karim Nice of HSW, writes, “Controlling the engine is the most processor-intensive job on your car, and the engine control unit is the most powerful computer on most cars.”

“The ECU uses closed-loop control, a control scheme that monitors outputs of a system to control the inputs to a system, managing the emissions and fuel economy of the engine (as well as a host of other parameters). Gathering data from dozens of different sensors, the ECU knows everything from the coolant temperature to the amount of oxygen in the exhaust. With this data, it performs millions of calculations each second, including looking up values in tables, calculating the results of long equations to decide on the best spark timing and determining how long the fuel injector is open. The ECU does all of this to ensure the lowest emissions and best mileage.”

Wow, that’s a lot of control, right?

Well, now, a privacy group known as The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is warning the public that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act– which is aimed at cracking down on copyright violations– may prevent drivers from working on these increasingly ECU controlled engines.

mech4If enforced, this act would essentially put an end to the era of the “at-home” mechanic, especially as cars become increasingly ECU-centric.

Fortunately, the EFF has already filed a petition with the US Copyright Office that is aimed at making hobbyists and home mechanics exempt from the law.

In the petition, the organization says that the law is a threat to vehicle owners that are “engaged in a decades-old tradition of mechanical curiosity and self-reliance.”

They also go on to say, “The automobile aftermarket is remarkably robust, accounting for hundreds of billions of dollars in the United States alone. Yet, because most automobile manufacturers deploy measures to prevent access to ECU firmware and updates, vehicle owners are unable to access the firmware on their own vehicles without incurring legal risk under Section 1201.”

Currently, there have been no lawsuits filed against individual owners. But many people are worried that that may change soon.

One reason that things may change is that automakers could possibly use this act as a way to strangle ALL competitors and possibly jack up prices. Think about it: if an automaker has a specific code for their ECU, they would be the only one that is able to provide performance upgrades for their vehicles without violating the act that is currently in place. In addition to at-home mechanics that like the idea of tinkering with their ride, this would be especially harmful to aftermarket businesses that provide drivers with competitive pricing and alternative car parts.

mechanic3The problems don’t stop there, either. Some other problems include:

  • Limiting the availability to work on ECU coding could limit the work of individual mechanics, instead forcing drivers to go to manufacturer approved dealerships. Say hello to even higher prices!
  • The limitations would obstruct security researcher’s work, making it more difficult to test for potential problems and make sure that manufacturers are delivering safer products.

EFF staff attorney Kit Walsh says, “That’s exactly what can happen, and we’ve seen the DMCA used to extend monopolies before. It gives manufacturers the power to control secondary markets by leveraging the copyright law, if it doesn’t include enough of a safety valve to allow for lawful uses.”

In the end, the EFF movement is a battle that all car and truck enthusiasts need to stay on top of and show support for because the decision might just impact everything we know and love about the industry.


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