Who can access automobile software?

Posted at 2:11 AM, Feb 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-13 04:11:03-05

If you just plunked down 35,000 or more for a new car, you might be surprised to know that the manufacturer says it owns the software that makes the car run, not you.

“I’m kind of shocked by that,” said Rita Lyn, the owner of a new Chevrolet Impala. “It seems to me that they should disclose that so I would know.”

The disclosure is in the fine print.

But there are enough people who feel strongly about who can access the software, that the U.S. Copyright Office got involved.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation asked for an exemption to the provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that prohibits circumvention of technological measures that control access to copyrighted works.

EFF asserted that vehicle owners are entitled to use the computer programs in Electronic Control Units to diagnose, repair or modify vehicles as a matter of fair use.

Without the exemption, vehicle owners must take their cars to authorized repair shops, or purchase expensive, manufacturer-authorized tools to diagnose and repair their vehicles.

The Association of Global Automakers, Auto Alliance, Eaton Corporation, GM, John Deere and Motor and Equipment Manufacturers Association opposed the exemption saying vehicle owners have alternative options such as manufacturer-authorized repair shops and tools.

Mike Trevathan at Rocky Mountain Auto Service says nearly every car on the road has some kind of computer system.  Some more elaborate than others.

“The manufacturers have spent millions of dollars to develop that software to make the cars run as efficiently as they do these days,” he said, “so I think the manufacturer should retain ownership of the software.”

The head of the Colorado Automobile Dealers Association agrees.  Tim Jackson says the manufacturers would be liable if anything were to go wrong with the computer system, “so they should maintain control.”

Jackson added that “we’re not too far away from autonomous cars,” that drive themselves.  “That proprietary control of the black box is going to be even more important then, than it is now, because it could alter the ability of that car to avoid a serious accident.”

The US Dept. of Transportation and EPA weighed in against the exemption citing concerns about safety and the environment.

According to the Patent Office, EPA explained that vehicle modifications are often performed to increase engine power or boost fuel economy, but that these modifications increase vehicle emissions and thus violate the Clean Air Act.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration supported the exemption, saying it was necessary to allow consumers to continue to engage in the longstanding practice of working on their own cars.

The Patent Office Librarian granted the exemption to allow the diagnosis, repair or lawful modification of a vehicle function, when it’s a necessary step undertaken by the authorized owner of the vehicle.   The exemption from current copyright law excludes computer programs that are chiefly designed to operate vehicle entertainment and telematics (tracking) systems.

The exemption will become operative on October 28, 2016.