Are the Car Companies Trying to Move U.S. Drivers to the Passenger Seat?

Posted by Aaron Lowe on May 04, 2015

You may be following a story that has gone viral recently that centers around claims by the vehicle manufacturers that car owners should be prevented from working on their own vehicle. The issue in question arose when the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) requested that the Copyright office approve a proposed exemption for the diagnosis and repair of motor vehicles from the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s (DMCA) prohibition against circumvention of technological protection measures that control access to copyrighted works. According to their website, EFF “champions user privacy, free expression, and innovation through impact litigation, policy analysis, grassroots activism, and technology development.”


It’s interesting that EFF’s exemption request probably would have received little attention, but for opposition comments filed by General Motors (GM) and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. As part of their comments, GM and the Alliance make the case that the car companies own the software on the vehicle and that it is licensed to the car owner. Therefore, any attempt by the car owner to circumvent the software on the car would be considered a violation of the car companies’ copyright. They also make the case that car owners working on their car could endanger the safety of the vehicle and cause the vehicle emissions system to operate out of compliance. The manufacturers state that the exemption is not necessary, pointing to the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the Auto Care Association and Coalition for Auto Repair Equality with the car makers that says that manufacturers will make available all of the information that is necessary to repair a vehicle.


Yes, the MOU was intended to ensure that information is available to car owners and shops so that vehicles can be repaired. However, the entire concept behind Right to Repair and the MOU is that the car owner owns the vehicle when they purchase it; and that those same car owners should have the freedom to have that vehicle repaired by whomever they want, including themselves. In fact, one of the hallmarks of Americans’ love affairs with their car is the freedom that it provides, whether it is taking the car on a road trip or being able to work on it in their garage. This concept of ownership goes beyond just what repair information the car companies place on their website -- it is ownership of the entire vehicle.


There is no doubt that technology has changed how vehicles are repaired. Cars are run by computers, and therefore repairing or customizing a vehicle entails changes to the software that control the vehicle systems. However, should the computerization of vehicles change how car owners view their vehicle? We don’t think so. Clearly, car owners should not be encouraged to tamper with their vehicle’s emissions or safety systems (there are laws in place to ensure the integrity of the emissions system), but sometimes innovation that comes from outside the vehicle manufacturer can lead to better safety, improved performance and reduced pollution.


Further, technologies such as telematics systems and new entertainment features provide more opportunities for car owners to customize their driving experience. There is little doubt that the connected car will further enhance a driver’s connection with their car, unless of course the manufacturers determine to stifle innovation through their drive for profits.


The Auto Care Association feels strongly that when a consumer buys a vehicle, they purchase everything -- the body, seats, engine and yes, the software on that vehicle as well. Anything less is not in the best interest of the automotive industry or the U.S. car owner.


You can find a copy of the joint comments filed with the U.S. Copyright Office by the Auto Care Association and Automotive Parts Rebuilders Association here.