Friday, April 24, 2015

Hands Off My Car

I've been working on vehicles most of my life. In my teenage years I was a true gearhead, owning and modifying a series of muscle cars. I still have an old trophy laying around from winning my class in 1970 at the old San Antonio Drag Raceway. (Click here for some neat old pictures from 'back in the day.')

One of my early jobs was as an attendant at a full service filling station (remember those?). After a while I worked my way up to assistant mechanic (that meant I did all the hard dirty work while the owner lounged around, drank Cokes, and told me what I was doing wrong.

During my time in the Army I was assigned to the motor pool, working on an assortment of vehicles (both wheeled and tracked) and field generators.

In short, I knew my way around things motorized. But all that changed about 20 years ago.

I don't work on cars much anymore, especially since all the fun under-the-hood stuff changed from mechanical to digital.
In the old, pre-computer controlled days, the path to more horsepower ran deep under the hood into the bowels of the engine, and much time and money was needed for bigger cams, larger valves, and high compression pistons. Sure, you can still do all that today, but why bother? Now getting more horsepower and torque from your engine is as easy as plugging in a programmer. With just a few keystrokes you can have power and acceleration you can feel.

The computer, commonly known as ECM, ECU, or PCM, is your vehicle’s brain and controls every function, particularly ones that are critical for performance like fuel delivery, ignition timing and spark advance. However, the computer is calibrated very conservatively at the factory, with settings intended for the “average” driver. Your engine is capable of much more, and if you’re an enthusiast you can unleash this hidden power with a performance programmer.
(More detailed info here, including overviews of Performance Chips, Control Modules, and Performance Monitors.)

All of this bubbled up to the top of my mind when I read that car makers are trying to make it illegal for people to work on their own cars.
One of the inherent rights of owning a vehicle is the ability to get on one’s backside — a wrench in one hand and a grease rag in the other, and just tinker to your little heart’s desire. Since the vehicle was invented, it’s been an important facet within the community of gearheads.

General Motors — the same company responsible for 87 deaths related to faulty ignition switches, FYI — wants to take that right away from you citing safety and security issues.

To be fair, what they really want to prevent is the use of the afore-mentioned performance chips and programmers. Their approach is to argue that because technology is now so pervasivly embedded in modern vahicles, they should actually be classified as “mobile computing devices.” That would bring them under the auspices of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

It’s been around since 2000 and started as anti-Internet piracy legislation. But automakers want to use it to try and make working on your own car illegal. Yes, illegal. The general premise is that unlike cars of the past, today’s vehicles are so advanced and use such a large amount of software and coding in their general makeup, altering said code could be dangerous and possibly even malicious.

Listing the vehicle as a “mobile computing device,” the law would hypothetically protect automakers from pesky owners looking to alter any sort of technology in the vehicle that relates to the onboard computer. Flashing your ECU would be a big no no, which could also lead to all sorts of problems for aftermarket shops.

What GM, and even tractor companies like John Deere, argues is that you, as an owner, don’t actually own your car. Rather, you’re sort of just borrowing it for an extended amount of time and paying for the rights to use the technology. If it sounds ridiculous— it is. But it gets even more ludicrous.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, John Deere argued that “letting people modify car computer systems will result in them pirating music through the on-board entertainment system.”

That’s right— pirating music. Through a tractor.
Isn't that just about the stupidest thing you've ever heard? A tractor as a mechanism to pirate music... GMAFB.

Let me get this straight. I shell out my hard-earned $$$ to buy a vehicle. I own it. I maintain it. I register it, pay taxes on it, insure it, and in general am responsible for all aspects of its maintenance and operation ... except that I can't modify it!?!?

I don't think so.

It's mine! I'll do what I damn well please with it. They'll get my wrench when they pry it out of my cold dead fingers.

What's next? Outlawing DIY home improvements?



Randy said...

I saw this dame report . Unbelievable. I used to work on my cars almost every weekend, to keep them running. Out of necessity. We couldn't afford to have any one work on those junks. Then everything started changing in the 80's. The cars got to smart for me. I just can't fathom how this could ever be enforceable with the shade tree guys. Idiotic to say the least.

Randy said...

*same, sorry, fat mechanic fingers

Old NFO said...

They pass that, I'm buying Shoeboxes... Screwem...

Well Seasoned Fool said...

Don't know why they are trying this stunt. They can't fix their own product. (snark intended)

CenTexTim said...

Randy - I dunno - I kinda like dame reports! :-)

NFO - hard to believe, isn't it?

WSF - truth!