Tinkering with cars is about as American as apple pie, but cars are a whole lot more complicated than the pie your grandma made last Thanksgiving. They’re increasingly more complex and that complexity usually involves the computerized components in a car which are the key to making sure that all its systems run correctly. Mess with those and you could mess things up but good, so automakers want to make it illegal.
Before you lose your mind at the thought of being told that you can’t fix your own car, let’s take a look at the automakers’ point of view and how we got to this sad place. Blame it all on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which was signed into law back in 1998. No one considered what this law might mean for cars because cars weren’t rolling computers on wheels at the time.
The sticking point comes from section 1201 which protects intellectual property. The US Copyright Office is currently debating whether those bits of text prohibit people from working on their own cars. Right now, the office holds hearings every 3 years to determine if certain activities are exempt from section 1201 and there are groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation which are fighting to make sure you can still work on your car.
The automakers have a different point of view and it’s not just about keeping their software a secret, but about making sure people don’t mess with things and end up getting hurt. Electronic controls run all sorts of critical functions like steering and braking. They’re set to exacting specifications and the concern is that if people mess with those settings, they could create imbalances within the car that will lead to malfunctions and accidents.
It’s also gone beyond the idea that you might mess things up with new concerns over the hackability of your car becoming an issue. The thought that you could accidentally open up your car to a hacker because you messed with the electronic control unit (ECU) is none too appealing.
The reality of the situation is that people have been modifying ECUs for years to eke out a little more horsepower, improve fuel efficiency, and otherwise enhance their vehicles. These tweaks haven’t led to mass chaos, so why try to make this illegal now?
Automakers are concerned because software technology is becoming a big deal in cars. In just the last few years it’s become commonplace to have cars that are wi-fi hotspots with streaming music capability and a suite of apps available through a touchscreen. That technology has become an integral part of every car so the chance to accidentally mess it up and cause problems is a greater worry than ever.
If things go the automakers’ way, then you might not have the freedom to work on your car the way you have in the past. Will you welcome an excuse to bring the car in for service instead of spending an afternoon doing it yourself, or will you stop tinkering with your car when they pry your tools from your cold, dead fingers?