If your idea of a fun afternoon is tinkering with your car, maybe something involving working with or talking with your car’s computers to make it run faster – your shade tree mechanic freedoms may soon be in jeopardy. Using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (or DMCA), some dozen or so automakers are trying to prohibit you from working on your own car.

As reported in Jalopnik and other media sources and numerous car forums, the car companies consider cars “mobile computing devices” and thus falling under the protection of the DMCA. They even argued in a statement against a proposed exemption to allow consumers to work on their own cars:

“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.

Who Are These Automakers? 

The list of automakers thus far signing on to try to keep you from working on your car includes:

Do Automakers Have a Point?

Let’s look at a few of the reasons why automakers may have a point here – and some where they very obviously may not.

First of all, there may be safety implications. As Jalopnik points out, “locking out key safety features while leaving other components open to repair or modification is certainly possible.” The publication goes on to say that if you tinker with your car’s ECU by flashing it to increase horsepower, change the throttle response or some other little modification, you’ll be breaking the law. That’s even if you don’t touch the car’s computer safety or security codes.

Second, unauthorized tinkering could void your car’s warranty. Well, that’s going to depend on what is determined to be unauthorized tinkering. Are consumers not going to be able to change their car’s oil in the driveway without violating the law? Will putting on bigger tires void the warranty? It’s easy to see that this could quickly get out of hand.

Supposedly, there’s an agreement to allow independent repair shops and the aftermarket parts industry to continue but that doesn’t give Joe or Janet home mechanic any leeway. You’ll still be breaking the law.

Third, automakers say that while you bought and paid for your car, you don’t own the software code. Therefore, you can’t make any alterations to it.

Granted, millions of Americans wouldn’t think twice about working on their own car, other than maybe adding some washer fluid now and then and checking tire pressure with a hand-held gauge. Even that’s computerized in most new cars with the tire pressure monitoring system. But for those of us with a hankering and some fair bit of knowledge – we know what we’re doing – getting locked out of working on our cars would be a kick in our automotive freedoms, so to speak.

The Fight Isn’t Over

Originally published by Generation Opportunity and reposted in Watchdog.org, there is some effort to fight this draconian law. The Electronic Freedom Foundation is trying to do something, calling the DMCA an “innovation killer.” The EFF claims that the Auto Alliance, the group representing the abovementioned automakers, wants to treat everyone who modifies their car as if they were a pirate – as in, pirating music through their car’s onboard entertainment system [emphasis added].

Where will it all go from here? It’s anyone’s guess. But from scanning a few of the car and other forums, such as Camaro6.org and Straightdope.com, consumers who like working on their cars – or like the idea of being able to do so legally – aren’t taking too kindly to this proposed shutout.

For a good overview of what’s involved in this controversy, check out the YouTube video link here from 4WheelOnline.com.

But we really want to know where you net out on all this. Are you concerned that your freedoms are being taken away from you? Should working on your own car be illegal? Do you agree that automakers own the software and you should be barred from touching it or making any kind of revisions? Do you think there is some middle ground that can be found to allay carmakers’ concerns (and potential liability) and still allow consumers to tinker to a certain extent?

We’d love to hear your comments, so please take a minute to let us know in the comments section below. While it may not make a difference in the long run, you’ll get to have your say. As the story goes, it’s not over until it’s over – and we certainly hope it’s not over for all of us who love working on our cars.


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