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Automakers Say You Should Stop Working on Your Car - Are They Right?

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 4/22/2015 Frank Markus

There's a battle being waged over who's allowed to service or modify your car. Right now, the U.S. Copyright Office is trying to decide whether the many computer systems found in today's cars should be protected as intellectual property as defined by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was passed in 1998. Lobbyists for a number of automakers say they should be, and in addition have submitted comments to the office saying their systems are too complex for consumers and independent mechanics to service.

Automakers Say You Should Stop Working on Your Car - Are They Right?

I love nothing better than tinkering with my old cars. It’s very relaxing. I also derive great satisfaction from troubleshooting our daily drivers, by busting out my Bluetooth-linked GoPoint BT1 OBD-II port reader and iPhone app. When it displays the source of a “check-engine” light, I can usually reset the light using the app, buy and install the sensor on that circuit, and set things right nine times out of ten. I can see no really good reason why this level of home-repair should be outlawed or copyright-protected. Furthermore, I would greatly resent any move to make it impossible to bring my out-of-warranty cars in to an independent shop for service, to save a few dollars relative to dealer service rates.

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I can see no really good reason why this level of home-repair should be outlawed or copyright-protected

But I understand the problem and empathize with OE manufacturers when it comes to “chipping” engine controllers. As we gear up for the fully connected-car future, there is enormous energy being invested in ruggedizing vehicle electrical/electronic architectures against malicious actors. When every car is connected to every other one and to the grid and to the cloud, very bad things can happen. Preventing this requires layers upon layers of firewalls, checks and balances, electronic handshakes, etc., all of which is placing increasing demands on the in-car silicon. It is an accepted fact that cars will replace mobile devices as the driver behind ensuring that Moore’s Law keeps the computing power of a silicon chip increasing steeply, and that maintaining security will require perpetual vigilance and frequent security updates.

One of the big concerns facing the cyber-security community pertaining cars is that they keep the security-checking algorithms simple enough and separate enough so as to never draw computing power away from a safety-critical braking or steering system, not to mention from the brains tasked with interpreting the signals coming in from the various forward-looking cameras, radar, laser, and sonar sensors from slamming on the brakes to prevent a collision or save a pedestrian. Nobody needed to worry about any such nonsense back when Steve Dinan, John Lingenfelter, Reeves Callaway, and their cohorts first started developing performance chips.

I’m not sure I would feel comfortable driving an aftermarket-chipped 2016 BMW 7 Series or S-Class with all their quasi-autonomous advance driver assistance systems, presuming anyone felt brave enough to attempt to hack those cars’ brains. I DO hope that the Mopars and Ford Performance and AMG and BMW M folks of the world will recognize the customer pull for performance and consider offering factory-authorized upgrades. And in my view, our government ought to fight to protect the independent repair industry by requiring OEMs to provide the training and tools required to safely service their vehicles, as these licensed professionals serve to keep dealer service pricing in check. MotorTrend Image© Provided by MotorTrend MotorTrend Image

As for me, I’ll just keep some old enough cars in the garage to satisfy my greasy-fingers jones.

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