Your Right to Repair Your Own Car is at Risk

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Once upon a time, in a world without computers, the internet, and autonomous cars, a car was just a car. It was a bunch of moving parts that all fit together perfectly and, if something went wrong, then a gearhead could mess around with those parts and set things right. That was then, but this is now and automakers think you’re going mess things up but good on today’s complex cars. They’d like you to stop and are seeking protection under copyright laws, but at least one U.S. Senator thinks this is a bad idea.

It all comes down to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This keeps third parties from accessing copyrighted works and was originally intended to prevent the illegal distribution of music and movies. At the time, cars weren’t a part of the conversation, but that has changed over the years.

Infotainment systems and many of the crucial functions that run a car now fall under this law. The automakers want to keep us from messing around for fear we’re going to do something unsafe. There are tolerances and limits coded into all that software for a reason. Overriding these settings could, automakers argue, make a car unsafe.

Every three years, the Copyright Office holds hearings to discuss any exemptions to the law. Cars have never been a part of these hearings, but now they’re considering two exemptions that would protect car owners and allow them to continue with their tinkering. Once would allow owners to modify and repair their own cars while the second would allow security researchers the right to investigate vehicle software.

According to Autoblog, automakers are against the exemptions, but not allowing them could keep you from doing work on your own car. It sounds ridiculous. It’s your car, right? People have been working on their own cars since the advent of cars. The chance of someone doing something wrong has always been there. The only difference now is that the potential mistakes include messing with software, not just messing with the physical components of a car.

Massachusetts is currently the only state that has any kind of “Right To Repair” legislation, after a ballot initiative passed in 2012 with 86 percent of the popular vote. Ray Magliozzi — our pal from Car Talk, who we’ll be hosting a Twitter Chat with this Wednesday from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. — testified in favor of the legislation in Massachusetts, saying “This legislation protects consumer choice and levels the playing field for independent repair shops. Right now, many repairers do not have access to the information and the customer pays big for that disadvantage.”

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon is in support of the exemptions and is one of the few speaking out in support. His stance is that preventing all that tinkering might stifle innovation. If you can’t take something apart and see how it works, then there’s no opportunity to make it better. He’s also critical of the EPA’s concerns that people could thwart systems that protect the environment.

The EPA’s arguments fall flat in the face of Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal. It wasn’t the government, but independent researchers who uncovered their cheat. Without the proposed exemptions, that kind of research would be illegal.

A decision on the exemptions is expected from the Copyright Office by the end of the month. It’s anyone’s guess what they’ll decide, so best move your car tinkering plans to the top of your to-do list while you can still work on your own car.

Nicole Wakelin

Nicole Wakelin