Cars are fast becoming like smart phones. They offer many of the same features: hands-free and voice-activated controls, video monitors, Internet access, WiFi hotspots, maps with turn-by-turn travel instructions, and much more. That's a good thing, right? Read on and judge for yourself.
You did you homework. You decided to buy a new car and not lease one. Many people dislike the restrictions with leasing contracts: mileage caps, required maintenance schedule, required maintenance at the dealer, and more. So, you own a new car and can use the mechanic of your choice for maintenance, repairs, and modifications, right? Not if automakers have their way.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is collecting consumers' signatures for a petition with the U.S. Copyright Office. What's the Copyright Office have to do with your vehicle? Plenty. The EFF petition is to ensure vehicle owners have the rights to access the software your vehicle uses. The automakers want to use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to control who can access the software in the vehicles they make.
What's the big deal? Most automakers oppose the EFF petition for an DMCA exemption. No access to the software in your vehicle means you've lost the freedom to choose the mechanic of your choice for maintenance, repairs, and modifications of your vehicle. That means, you really don't own that new vehicle you just bought.
many of you are wondering: wasn't this problem fixed with the "Right to Repair" laws? After a vote in 2012, Massachusetts enacted in 2013 a "right to repair" law. In 2014, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the Association of Global Automakers, the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association, and the Coalition for Automotive Repair Equality agreed to a memorandum of understanding, based upon the Massachusetts law, to preserve consumer choice and not oppose "right to repair" legislation in the other 49 states.
Now, it seems that the fight has quietly shifted to software law: the DMCA and Copyright Office. Some people might call this an end-run by automakers around "Right to Repair" laws.
The EFF explained why vehicle owners need access to the software:
"Modern cars contain dozens of computers called electronic control units (ECUs), and the code on those ECUs is potentially covered by copyright. But many repairs require access to that code, as does research into vehicle safety... When auto manufacturers deploy technology to lock people out of the code controlling their own cars... The result is that only persons authorized by the manufacturer can effectively perform repairs, and independent audits of car safety and security take place under a legal cloud, if at all... Errors in ECU code can cause braking systems to malfunction, and security researchers have exposed vulnerabilities that would allow attackers to hijack vehicle functions. When this research takes place in public, it makes it much more likely that manufacturers will act to fix those problems... Some car modders have experimented and found that modifications to the code in vehicle ECUs can increase fuel efficiency. Others have implemented new vehicle functions using free space in the ECUs' memory."
Can drivers trust the auto industry to be forthcoming with problems in the software their cars use? Recent history suggests not: airbag-related deaths, ignition-switch-related deaths, massive numbers of recalled vehicles, and hacking concerns. The problems occurred outside the USA, too.
The EFF explained opposition by auto manufacturers:
"... They warn that owners with the freedom to inspect and modify code will be capable of violating a wide range of laws and harming themselves and others. They say you shouldn’t be allowed to repair your own car because you might not do it right. They say you shouldn’t be allowed to modify the code in your car because you might defraud a used car purchaser by changing the mileage. They say no one should be allowed to even look at the code without the manufacturer’s permission..."
The EFF explained how this situation happened:
"The DMCA essentially blundered into this space and called all tinkering and code inspection into question, even acts that are otherwise lawful like repairing your car, making it work better at high altitude, inspecting the code to find security and safety issues, or even souping it up for use in races on a private course."
Just like any desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, or tablet I'd expect to be able to install anti-virus software in my car to inspect the software and storage devices for malware. All of these devices are essentially computers that perform similar functions.
To be fair, many companies besides automakers have issued DMCA-related threats and lawsuits. The EFF compiled a list in 2013. You'll probably recognize some of the corporate names. Here's one example from the list:
"In 2009, Apple threatened the free wiki hosting site BluWiki for hosting a discussion by hobbyists about reverse engineering iPods to interoperate with software other than Apple’s own iTunes. Without a work-around, iPod and iPhone owners would be unable to use third-party software, such as Winamp or Songbird, to “sync” their media collections between computer and iPod or iPhone. The material on the public wiki was merely a discussion of the reverse engineering effort, along with some snippets of relevant code drawn from Apple software. There were no “circumvention tools,”... Apple’s lawyers sent OdioWorks, the company behind BluWiki, a cease and desist letter threatening legal action under the DMCA. Bluwiki ultimately sued Apple to defend the free speech interests of its users. In response, Apple dropped its threat, and BluWiki reinstated the deleted pages."
Auto-industry executives aren't stupid. They've watched consumers spend massive amounts of money to buy smartphones and wireless data plans. Those smartphones are tethered (via contracts) to a specific wireless service provider (e.g., AT&T, Verizon, Sprint), operating system software, app store, and device manufacturer. So, don't blame auto-industry executives entirely.
For years, consumers have chosen convenience over the freedom of choice:
- Consumers have given up the freedom to choose the wireless service provider with their smartphones. (Remember, the term "jailbreaking" effectively criminalized an activity with smartphones that had previously been legal with landline phones.)
- Consumers have given up the freedom to choose the operating system with their smartphones,
- Many mobile devices lack USB ports, which force users to use data plans and/or cloud services to move files to other devices
- Consumers have agreed to one-stop shopping with app stores. (Where else in your life do you shop only at one store?
Having watched all of this, auto-industry executives probably have concluded that they can get vehicle owners to accept similar trade-offs: convenience over freedom of choice.
If this bothers you (and I sincerely hope that it does bother you), then sign the EFF petition, especially if you had problems fixing or modifying your vehicle because you were locked out of the software. And, write to your elected officials.
What are your opinions of automakers using DMCA law? When you buy a new car, do you expect to take it to the mechanic of your choice? What are you opinions of trading convenience for freedom of choice?