Will a Vague Copyright Law Keep You from Hacking Your Car?

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Will a Vague Copyright Law Keep You from Hacking Your Car?
By Juliann Brown and Hep Svadja
Photo Illustration Credit: Juliann Brown and Hep Svadja

The suburbs outside Washington, D.C., may be better known for the high tech telecommunications and defense industries than for automotive hot rodding, but in a modest two-bay shop in Northern Virginia, Michael Hogarty is one of the many players eager to upset that notion. All around the barn-like structure where Hogarty runs his professional repair shop are hints of an atypical operation. A Suzuki Samurai with a more powerful Chevrolet motor installed sits in one corner of the driveway. Evidence of a wide range of projects — custom-made vehicle accessories and skateboard ramp components among them — lean against the fence.

Hogarty, an ASE-certified master technician, began his career working in other people’s shops, fixing lawn mowers and later, Ferraris. Now he spends a good portion of each week diagnosing and repairing mundane family haulers. But what he’s really into, he says, is custom modification, which is, at its root, problem-solving. If a customer wants a new stereo, a non-standard engine, or wheels that don’t fit, he finds a way to make it work and work well. His shop is abuzz every day of the week with power junkie friends and customers who want setups no one else knows how to do.

But with vehicle computer systems becoming ever more complex, even jobs that were once simple, like replacing the stereo, are much more involved than they used to be. His projects have him digging ever deeper into the computer code that runs vehicle systems in an effort to balance the changes made when individual components are swapped out or improved upon.

“On newer vehicles, you can’t just pull out the stereo and throw in something from Best Buy,” he says. “Vehicle systems are all integrated now.”

So he relies upon a broad knowledge of mechanics, electronics, and computers to find the best outcome for every puzzle that comes his way.

But there’s a challenge on the horizon different from the custom turbo installations and remote starter setups he has tackled in the past. It’s a legal hurdle, but it’s also a cultural question. Hogarty, and other independent mechanics and innovators like him, may see an obscure copyright law passed nearly two decades ago — the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) — impact their ability to access the computer systems central to today’s cars and trucks. Modders have become more like hackers than ever before, and the boundaries of how they can exercise their computer savvy is at stake.

Programming Performance

Photo by Andrew Albosta
Photos by Andrew Albosta

The brain of every modern vehicle is its computer system. Like a brain — or brains, since the system is really a network of computer modules working in concert — the system sends and receives signals to and from sensors located all over the vehicle through the Controller Area Network, or CAN. Among its primary functions is engine management, the delicate balance of supplying fuel and air in the right doses to create smooth, efficient power. But it also regulates heating and cooling, audio, braking, stability, air bags, door and window motors, and other things. CAN data allows different systems to communicate with one another, and makes possible features like speed-sensitive stereo volume control and automatic sliding doors that cannot be opened while the vehicle is in motion

Vehicle computers are nothing new. The electronic control unit (ECU) as we know it today appeared in the late 1970s. By the early 1980s, all cars in the United States were equipped with decision-making microprocessors. The earliest used input from engine sensors to activate solenoids and actuators designed to optimize engine performance. General Motors, for instance, used computer-controlled carburetors that reacted better than mechanical ones to changes in atmospheric conditions. Over the years, other functions were gradually added to the list of tasks ECUs could handle. Wire looms became ever more bulky, so the system was streamlined with the advent of the CAN (rather than giving every system its own wires).

Through the CAN, and specifically through the onboard diagnostic, or OBD-II port (a multi-pin computer connector that’s been installed in all cars in the U.S. since 1996, within a few feet of the steering wheel), Hogarty and his tinkerer cohorts can access vehicle software to find patterns and make changes when necessary. Each vehicle may have been engineered by the manufacturer to satisfy emissions, safety, and fuel efficiency requirements, Hogarty says, but someone interested in modifying one may have more specific goals. Many want more power for better results at the track, but lower emissions, better fuel economy, improved cooling for towing, and more complete engine performance monitoring are among myriad other reasons people have for accessing and changing factory settings through a vehicle’s onboard software.

Paul Bartek, an engineer for a company that builds electronic displays, dabbles in the auto hobby in his spare time. But his tinkering goes far beyond the mechanical trial and error of years past. Through his websitehe has shared open-source software, tutorials, and DIY projects aimed at automotive enthusiasts. One uses a Raspberry Pi to extract engine performance numbers and display them on the vehicle’s display screen.

“I created this because I wasn’t happy with what was on the market,” he explains. “There were a few apps that could show engine torque and a few other things, but there’s a lot more information available. There was no user input on any of those apps.”

Bartek isn’t alone. There are all sorts of products on the market, many of which had the same humble beginnings. One, called Clickdrive, integrates driving-related smartphone apps. Another, Truvolo, monitors fuel economy and location. There’s another that keeps tabs on traffic conditions, coordinates ridesharing, and helps users find parking and filling stations. Hogarty says he uses aftermarket piggyback connectors that tap into vehicle control computers so that he can change parameters like transmission shift points and temperature settings.

Progressive Insurance offers a device called Snapshot that beams driving habits to insurance adjusters from your OBD-II port through a cellular modem. The company gives a discount to customers who drive softly, and for as few miles as possible — what it calls low-risk driving. (Of course, there’s a hack for Snapshot that allows the user to trick the device into thinking it’s plugged into the car of a little old lady who only drives to church every Sunday.) Other apps are aimed at parents who want to make sure their teen drivers aren’t distracted while behind the wheel.

Like Bartek, Hogarty uses small microprocessors to change values in the data that engine sensors send to the computer to optimize power. For example, swapping the air filter housing from the restrictive closed box most cars get at the factory for an open element filter changes the engine’s airflow characteristics. During warm up, and at wide-open throttle, when the most demand is being placed upon the engine, vehicle computers operate in “open loop” mode, using factory-set values to determine fuel flow. Hogarty says that by installing a small microprocessor in-line between the mass airflow sensor and the computer — feeding it power from nearby wires, as well as signals from other sensors, like the throttle position and O2 sensors and the tachometer — he can trick the computer into changing those values at wide-open throttle, dialing in air fuel requirements for more specific conditions.

“I see the input, measure the output, then change it to what I want it to be,” he says. “The manufacturer spends an incredible amount of time tuning their software in certain areas, but not at full load. They build their cars to satisfy a wide range of conditions, but that’s not necessarily going to work out when your goal is to squeeze as much power as possible out of it at the track or something.”

Hogarty says he has also used micro-processors and data analysis to help customers with more mundane problems. By installing a $30 module — something like a Raspberry Pi — and some open-source software to a vehicle’s computer system, a customer can, if they notice that the “check engine” light has come on, text him engine data from a specified time period. It helps him diagnose the problem and saves everyone a lot of time.

Computerization Creates Questions

Hogarty at the console of a dynamometer, which allows him to verify how changes to an ECU affect torque and horsepower.
Hogarty at the console of a dynamometer, which allows him to verify how changes to an ECU affect torque and horsepower.

Could the DMCA interfere with projects like Bartek’s? Could it keep Hogarty from diving into a computer system to change performance characteristics? Would its language prevent the people who developed other apps and programs from creating more? The law includes a provision regarding “technological protection measures (TPMs) that control access to copyrighted works.” The Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted a petition to the copyright office earlier this year proposing an exemption that would make an end run around the TPMs. General Motors opposed the exemption, calling it “overbroad,” and said in its comments that proponents “failed to establish that the challenged TPMs are causing, or are likely to cause in the next three years, a substantial adverse impact on users.”

Hogarty tests changes to the ECU of an SUV as it sits on a dynamometer.
Hogarty tests changes to the ECU of an SUV as it sits on a dynamometer.

The question is, whose side of the story is the right one: the auto manufacturers’ or EFF’s? According to the EFF, each state’s court system can interpret the law differently, which could lead to overzealous enforcement by automakers.

“At best, you’re left in a situation where manufacturers can threaten people who access vehicle software, which has a chilling effect on research and tinkering and means that innovators find it difficult to raise funding for new products that make cars more useful,” Kit Walsh, a staff attorney for EFF, says in an email. “A clear rule from the Library of Congress is needed to fix this state of affairs and protect legitimate tinkering and research in practice.”

Daniel Gage, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers — an advocacy group that includes all three major American automakers, as well as most of the Japanese and European ones — says in an email that the information protected by the DMCA was not needed to diagnose and repair vehicles. 

“Automakers are concerned that the proposed changes to the DMCA would cause dangerous consequences, including additional safety risks and violations of existing safety and environmental laws,” he says. “I also am not aware of any widespread DMCA prosecutions as a result of auto activity now, so what’s legal and acceptable today should be tomorrow unless changes to the law are made.”

EFF counters that making sure federal emissions and safety rules are followed is up to agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, not manufacturers and copyright law.

“Copyright law has crept into this space as a result of computerization,” Walsh says. “Under the manufacturers’ theory, this upsets traditional concepts of ownership that arise when you purchase a vehicle and lets them prohibit modding that involves software.”

Your Car, Your Choice

In his backyard shop, Hogarty is confronted by a problem with a Toyota Sienna minivan that’s a few years old. The sliding door won’t close all the way on cold days, or when the vehicle is parked on a hill. It’s an electronic malfunction, and to repair it, he says he has a couple of options. He can replace the motor, which still works, but that would be costly. So he taps into the vehicle’s computer and changes an electronic threshold value for the door so that it closes, even if the motor has to work a little harder and draws more current. For the family who owns an older van, it’s a better option.

The Torque app for Android accesses your car’s OBD-II port to track engine data and display it on your smartphone.
The Torque app for Android accesses your car’s OBD-II port to track engine data and display it on your smartphone.

He’s concerned that without more resolute language from the Copyright Office concerning DMCA, his solution to that problem and his deep dives into engine data to improve performance for motorsports applications could evaporate. “I think it’s best to reduce government and corporate input into our affairs and let the individual assume liability for the modifications made,” he says. 

MegaSquirt, a DIY electronic fuel injection computer.
MegaSquirt, a DIY electronic fuel injection computer.

If the recent spate of articles charging automakers with stripping customers of full vehicle ownership is any indication, the law’s vague language has plenty of people worried. As anyone who has ever worked on a car before knows, mistakes and unintended consequences are inevitable, but part of the learning process.

“Do we, as a country, want to have the ability to make mistakes on the things we purchase?” Hogarty says. “I generally don’t recommend that people go too far into the back end, but if you’re messing with your own car, like anything else — it’s up to you.”

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Benjamin Preston is one of the few journalists to hold he dubious distinction of having been an alignment technician at a Pep Boys in Fredericksburg, Va., and a automotive reporter for the New York Times, among a wide variety of other occupations. He is currently a writer- and greasemonkey-at-large for Time Inc's online automotive publication, the Drive. In addition to the Timeses, he has written for the Guardian, BBC Autos, Car and Driver, Jalopnik, and, he is very proud to say, Petersen's 4 Wheel & Offroad. When he's not writing about cars, he's either working on his own beaters or at the beach surfing.

View more articles by Benjamin Preston


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