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Clickbait Scandal: GM, FCA “Forbidding DIY Car Repairs”

by David Zatz on

Two major web sites have now posted articles on GM and John Deere’s policies, which, some may say, forbids owners from working on their own cars.

Allpar has received some mail on this topic, demanding it be addressed, and there has been a moderately active forum topic on the subject.

transmission controller computer (electronics)

Those who have used a computer that runs Mac OS X or Windows are probably already familiar with the terms, which say that the software on the vehicles is merely licensed to, not owned by, the vehicle buyer.

The news here is not that the same rules are being applied to cars, but that John Deere, the tractor maker, has tried to apply the controversial and restrictive Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to tractors, with other manufacturers, including but not limited to General Motors, agreeing in filings with the glacially-paced U.S. Copyright Office. A decision is due in July (weigh this against the 18 month waiting period for a copyright registration).

While General Motors is invariably singled out in emails and posts on the topic, it is joined, through the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, by FCA US, BMW, Ford, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo Cars North America.

One of the arguments against manufacturers is that they are locking down their products against external diagnostic tools, so that those who want access to proprietary error codes, for example, have to shell out for factory equipment or expensive aftermarket gear, rather than typical cheap code-scanners. (This is being addressed in some states by “Fair Repair” bills. The Federal government has long required standardized codes for most errors, but as cars get more complex, there are more proprietary codes.)

Few buyers of computer software have actually “owned” the code they run. If you “own” Microsoft Word, for example, you actually just own a license to run it, not the actual software, which is owned by the company. This has been a standard for many years. Even the firmware in a computer can be owned by the company and licensed to the buyer.

In FCA’s case, the boot loader coding is an FCA copyright, and the company can sue anyone who manipulates that code to edit the parameters.  In theory, as one reader pointed out, someone could develop completely new code to run a car. In reality, that would be horrendously expensive, and would likely lead to many problems.

There are some good arguments on either side. One reader noted they had hacked their software so the backup camera would operate in any gear (useful for offroading and quick K-turns); disabling the tire pressure alarm for off-roading; and allowing the electrical system to operate accessories indefinitely at the risk of killing the battery.  Some believe they can fix factory defects or customize the car to run their way, and I have to admit I’d like to set up my 300 to dim the gauges, not brighten them to blinding levels, when I shut it off at night

On the other hand, I can see owners altering their software for performance, killing their powertrain, resetting to normal, then getting warranty parts. I can see people messing with the code so that the illegal emissions skyrocketed, and would the company be blamed or fined for letting that happen? Of more concern are safety concerns — this could cause stalling, sudden surges, unexpected airbag deployment or braking, and all sorts of other problems, especially now that the software controls the brakes, shock absorbers (in some cars), AWD systems, etc., as well as the engines, climate control, and such.

In addition, any code that is opened to the public, is generally also opened to hackers, and while in theory one could set up a car to only accept commands from the hardware OBD II port, drivers could leave a wireless dongle on their car (as we sometimes do for testing) allowing easy intrusions, or attackers could find vectors to overcome that restriction — desktop breaches have shown that happens far more often than one would expect.

In the end, I have to conclude that this is not a conspiracy by auto manufacturers, but an attempt to use a stronger law than the existing ones to protect automakers from having large warranty claims that are not their fault, poor reputations (how many would blame the automaker rather than their own tuning mistakes?), and numerous multi-million-dollar lawsuits.

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