News of the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal is all over the Internet — in fact, if you try to look up emissions cheating, your Google results will almost entirely consist of articles about Volkswagen’s cheating scandal. But VW and other companies installing emissions cheating devices isn’t the only thing that bothers the EPA and other environmental agencies — what about the threat from car owners themselves?
While many aspects of vehicle electronics systems have traditionally been considered “black boxes” due to restrictive intellectual property regulations, some new laws are giving individuals more of a right to go in and tinker with their cars. A recent New York Times story shows how the Library of Congress and its United States Copyright Office have signed off on changes to something called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DCMA, of 1998. Some individuals and companies had been advocating for more access to certain kinds of software controls on vehicles. The NYT story shows how lawyers with the Electronic Frontier Foundation made the case that owners should be able to get into various parts of their car’s software to look for security vulnerabilities or to get information they need to repair their own cars, for example.
In a battle pitting car owners against automakers, consumers seem to have won the last skirmish. Also in the mix is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was arguing that more access to car systems would allow some car owners to effectively cheat on emissions themselves, for example, using outlawed “oxygen sensor changers” that can affect auto codes on exhaust.
This article from LongTailPipe breaks down the situation this way: “The EPA came out against this exemption because it would hinder EPA’s efforts to ensure that all cars complied with air pollution laws,” wrote David Herron, in an October 28 story on the site. “The U.S. Congress also proposed a law which would not only weaken air pollution laws, but throw up more roadblocks to people who’d study the innards of cars … Today we can celebrate because the U.S. Librarian of Congress decided to grant DMCA exemptions to tinker with the innards of tablet computers and on-board software in cars.”
This article lays out a lot of the text of the law, which shows that while new exceptions are giving more power to the owners of cars, trucks, and farm machinery, they’re not giving people a green light to cheat on emissions. Details built into the law reinforce the idea that there are fines and penalties for doing anything to a vehicle that would modify its engine system in such a way as to be considered an “emissions cheat.” So in a way, the results kind of seems like a win all around, but there are still a lot of concerns related to the sensitivity of the data that car systems contain.
As for the people that do car customizations and deal with the guts of vehicle systems day-to-day, no shop wants to be associated with the practice of illegally “jailbreaking” cars or consulting car owners on how to get around emissions regulations. In fact, some local shops that we spoke to didn’t seem to think these problems exist. But one local shop owner, David Ramos of Tint Express in Lancaster City, did have an opinion on how this kind of tinkering might work.
“It’s really easy to do,” said Ramos, pointing out that car owners can easily hack into their cars with a laptop if they know how the process works. However, he said, in general, doing any modifications to the software system of a modern vehicle is kind of a dangerous minefield. Ramos talked about a series of “triggers” where it’s easy to end up having to take the vehicle back to the dealership to get it reset. The complexity, he said, makes it hard for shops to do legitimate work like installing remote start systems — and probably will foil the plans of many an unscrupulous car owner who would try to modify exhaust software.
Not to mention that recent events have shown that people who try to cheat emissions regulations in this era of climate control awareness often get their comeuppance — again, just look at how Volkswagen’s ranking on Google.