Driveway tinkerers and shop-bound weekend racers could be a dying breed.
There are two main reasons for this:
- People who work on their own cars are stymied by the sheer amount of technology and custom tools needed to do the job.
- A new law could make it illegal to work on your own car.
The first reason is a natural consequence of technology. Open the hood of a modern car, and instead of seeing headers and valve covers, we’re greeted with a plastic cover emblematized with the vehicle’s logo and engine size.
Aside from having easy access to refill the windshield-wiper fluid, modern cars are basically untouchable for the average weekend do-it-yourselfer.
That in itself isn’t so bad, but a law that would outlaw us from even trying is very scary. And very real.
Car blogs and enthusiasts all over the country are exploding with comments on the efforts by the Auto Alliance, made up of a group of 12 major automakers, to use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to make it a violation of copyright law to work on, modify, or tinker under the hood of a personal vehicle.
In short, that would mean vehicle owners would be breaking the law by removing that plastic cover and attempting to repair or modify parts underneath.
This is a complicated and convoluted matter, which Jalopnik did a nice job of covering in a lot of detail. Feel free to read through it if you have the time. I’ll quote the Auto Alliance’s statement from that article, which summarizes their position (it’s long, but necessary):
Automobiles are inherently mobile, and increasingly they contain equipment that would commonly be considered computing devices… Many of the ECUs embodied in today’s motor vehicles are carefully calibrated to satisfy federal or state regulatory requirements with respect to emissions control, fuel economy, or vehicle safety. Allowing vehicle owners to add and remove programs at whim is highly likely to take vehicles out of compliance with these requirements, rendering the operation or re-sale of the vehicle legally problematic. The decision to employ access controls to hinder unauthorized “tinkering” with these vital computer programs is necessary in order to protect the safety and security of drivers and passengers and to reduce the level of non-compliance with regulatory standards. We urge the Copyright Office to give full consideration to the impacts on critical national energy and environmental goals, as well as motor vehicle safety, in its decision on this proposed exemption. Since the record on this proposal contains no evidence regarding its applicability to or impact on motor vehicles, cars and trucks should be specifically excluded from any exemption that is recommended in this area.
So basically if a car owner wanted to change his or her own oil or replace brake pads, there’s no problem. But if he or she wanted to reflash the ECU to get more horsepower, that would be a copyright violation. Even plugging into the OBD port to check for engine codes could potentially infringe on the automaker’s rights.
Things get a little muddy if someone wants to change a part that affects how the ECU receives its information, such as installing larger tires. If the ECU is programmed for stock tires, bigger ones will change how information is processed and could, potentially, create a violation.
This is all still new, and the idea isn’t hashed out enough to become a law, but it’s something that 12 of the world’s largest automakers seriously want to see happen.
I’m of the belief, like the writer of the Jalopnik article, that if I purchased something, I have the right to modify it as I see fit.
If you feel the same way, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has stepped up to protect vehicle owners and has started a petition you can sign if you’re so inclined to voice your opposition.
Should modifying your car be illegal?