In a recent report by Autoblog, the case of auto manufacturers wanting to prevent custom car builders and DIY consumers from repairing and modifying vehicles has once again come to the forefront. While this has been a hot topic of debate for quite some time, its recent escalation has aftermarket manufacturers and home mechanics alike in an uproar, as automakers want to make it illegal to work on a car or design parts to improve upon its original design.
What these companies are claiming is that this is a dangerous copyright violation, and that modern car computers are too advanced for consumers and tuners. As an avid DIY guy and aftermarket enthusiast, I find this news to be deeply concerning, as modifying and fixing a car is partially what being a car nut is all about.
According to a written statement from Auto Alliance, America’s top auto manufacturer lobbyist, the modification and home repair of a modern vehicle has now become”legally problematic” for manufacturers. There is a growing concern that tuners and mechanics who are fiddling with a modern car’s complicated electronic control units (ECUs) run the risk of altering or damaging a vehicle’s steering, throttle, suspension, safety features, and braking.
The Alliance of Global Automakers says that this could lead to “an imbalance by which the negative consequences far outweigh any suggested benefits.” There also is the chance that by modifying an ECU, people could open themselves and their cars up to cyber attacks and hackers.
In Autoblog’s article, Jennifer Dukarski, an intellectual property and technology attorney, made an interesting comment on the matter, pointing out that in recent years, court rulings have nullified quite a few patent protections. So automakers are now desperately searching for new ways to cover their assets; General Motors recently said that continuing to allow tuners and mechanics the ability to modify a car “would offer a serious, and potentially fatal, blow to the future of automotive telematics.”
But there are two sides to every story, and while automakers are busy claiming that DIYers and car builders are jeopardizing the safety and integrity of OEM designs, tuners and mechanics are also crying foul. Their argument is that automakers are trying to force car owners into taking their cars to a dealer and want to offer a line of “dealer-approved tuning ECUs” for enthusiasts.
This would border on monopolization and is a genuine threat to aftermarket auto specialists everywhere. Meanwhile, we the consumers are stuck somewhere in the middle, wondering if we should support the companies that design and build our cars or the people who fix them and make them more fun to drive.
On the other side of this heated battlefront stands a rag-tag army consisting of DIY consumers, independent mechanics, aftermarket parts manufacturers, and ECU tuners. They want to be able to keep doing what they have always done: improve upon an automaker’s design and fix any issues they run into along the way.
This controversy has little to do with styling points, suspension, brakes, or engine modifications, but instead focuses more on the all-encompassing, modern-day ECU. Tuners, tech-savvy mechanics, and DIYers have been hacking ECUs for years, and companies like Hondata and Cobb Tuning base their survival on having the ability to play with a car’s computer.
These companies offer complex electrical modifications and tuning tools that can add a boost in performance, increase fuel economy, log driving styles, and diagnose engine issues all in the hopes of making a car perform better.
But auto manufacturers are not interested in seeing an armada of self-reliant “auto specialists” eating away at their chances of getting a car into a dealership for some servicing. Plus, tinkering with an ECU can void a warranty, and automakers say that shady mechanics can now illegally adjust odometers, making a used car look like it has far fewer miles on it.
But sketchy used car salesmen and mechanics are going to do this regardless of whether it is legal or not, so the key question still remains unanswered. Are automakers really interested in protecting people from their own technological mistakes, or do they just want to pad their wallets all the more by eliminating the majority of the competition?
It is also important that we do not forget that dealer-issued electronic control units have been directly connected to engine issues, power loss, and air bags that prematurely deploy without warning. Claiming that people should not improve upon these designs is just preposterous. But even then, there is no denying the fact that amateur “tuners” stand a very high risk of making a car quite unsafe just because they want to make it perform better.
Any automaker who is seriously considering taking action on this issue needs to understand that the aftermarket community is an opinionated crowd and will boycott any company that keeps them from modifying a car. Eliminating independent mechanics is a poor idea, since many Americans still prefer to use a trusted family mechanic over going to a dealership.
Automakers stand the chance of seeing a wide0scale boycott on that front as well. And then there is the underlying issue with ownership. If I buy a new computer and want to upgrade its graphics card with a better one, slap more RAM in it, and throw a nicer motherboard in it, do I run the risk of getting slapped with a lawsuit?
Of course not. It is my property and I will modify it to my liking. And if it blows up on me and burns to the ground, guess what? I have no one to blame but myself.
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