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Congress May Force Revealing of Car Computer Secrets 683

marksven writes "The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is reporting that there is a bill with 86 co-sponsors in the House to force automakers to open up their proprietary interfaces to car computers. Small car repair shops are more and more becoming locked out of the repair business because most late model cars can only be fixed by accessing their computers with codes that are secret."
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Congress May Force Revealing of Car Computer Secrets

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  • by garcia ( 6573 ) * on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:35PM (#8569629)
    Bill has been tinkering with computers since the age of two. He has been playing with DVD drives on his computer since 1999. Recently he has been unable to watch any movies on his computer running Linux because of the codes that the MPAA has used to encrypt the disc.

    "I think it's an illegal monopoly. If you don't have the codes you can't watch the disc."

    Yet there's a law that protects the MPAA from having to give this code to the rest of the world. It's called the DMCA. It stops you from circumventing copy-protection.

    Why aren't there any lawmakers backing the public on DVD encryption? See here [].
    • by indros ( 211103 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:39PM (#8569664) Homepage
      The difference lies in the fact that with codes to your car, it can be serviced independently.

      With the codes to your DVD, you can make unlimited copies, and do anything and everything with them.

      Try doing that to your car when you get it's codes.
      • by GoofyBoy ( 44399 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:42PM (#8569711) Journal
        But its a bit more complex that just that.

        From the article;
        >Automakers are fighting the legislation; they believe the real goal is to obtain proprietary "calibration codes" that are the blueprints for how parts are made. With that information, Territo said, independent mechanics and parts manufacturers could duplicate major components such as fuel injectors that automakers have spent millions of dollars developing.

        So maybe its the same issue. A group wants to control their property by using technology which locks things up.
        • by Rude Turnip ( 49495 ) <[valuation] [at] []> on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:49PM (#8569796)
          "With that information, Territo said, independent mechanics and parts manufacturers could duplicate major components such as fuel injectors that automakers have spent millions of dollars developing."

          If the manufacturers spent millions of dollars designing parts and *didn't* get patents on those parts, then it's their own damn fault...and they have also failed their shareholders.

          If they had patented their expensively-designed parts, they would have zero problems with opening the specs for third-party repair shops and could still prevent third-party replica parts.

          • by AlecC ( 512609 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:03PM (#8569965)
            But it is probably not patentable. It is not an invention, it is precise settings which have to be worked out over hours and hours of testing. Exact timings for injectors at all speeds and load conditions, while allowing reasonable margins so that performance does not fall off with wear. This data - just a huge look-up table - costs millions of dollars to obtain, because it required many hours of running. But you cannot patent it. You can copyright it, of course, but if a copier made a number of minor, not very significant, changes in the tables, it would be very difficult to prove they had copied the original tables. "Of course we got the same results - they are the right results for this engine".
            • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:21PM (#8570172)
              This lawsuit isn't about valve timing tables and that type of data, this lawsuit is about engine diagnostic codes. They aren't protecting trade secrets, they are protecting their repair business by keeping out competition.
            • by theLOUDroom ( 556455 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:29PM (#8570273)
              It is not an invention, it is precise settings which have to be worked out over hours and hours of testing.

              But it's not.

              This is about ERROR CODES not ignition and fuel maps. This about being able to plug something into my car and have it tell me that there's a problem with XXXXX.

              That doesn't say shit about the design of that part. They just want access to the same diagnostic codes as the dealer. Right now manufactuers are only required to make a tiny subset of these codes availible.

              The automakers are just whining about their "intellectual property" because they think they can get away with it since the vast majority of the public doesn't know the difference between a diagnostic code, and the actual program code itself.
              • by Nogami_Saeko ( 466595 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @03:38PM (#8571004)
                I look at my new 04 Prius with more computer sensors and monitoring than I can shake a stick at. There's literally a sensor monitoring every component in the car, and it can pinpoint trouble spots very accurately.

                When something goes wrong, what happens? You get a big triangle on the display and a "service vehicle" message.

                What the hell?

                Why not put up some diagnostic info on the screen? "ABS Failure in Braking System", "O2 Sensor clogged", "MG2 - Generator Failure", etc? Maybe even a nice like "star trekky" diagram pointing to the component, or the area of the car the problem is located at.

                But that would make it possible for other people to diagnose problems, and possibly fix them. Toyota doesn't want that.

                They want people to bring their cars into the dealership for a few reasons - first, because they make the money on (out of warrantee) repairs. Secondly, because the dealership reports faults back to Toyota, who can then investigate the problem to determine if they had a bad run of components, or there was a design defect.

                • by GhostCypher ( 748646 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @04:31PM (#8571619)
                  I've been training as a mechanic and in most of our classes we use computer diagnostic tools as one step in verifying the problem.

                  First off, while the error codes are usually VERY accurate to what POTENTIAL problems are, they DON'T always tell you exactly what the problem is. Case in point: '96 GMC Yukon, the Service Engine light comes up every few days. Running the computer codes, it spits out a problem with an O2 sensor in the exhaust system, saying there is too much O2 in the exhaust. Now, this could be a number of things wrong...from problems with plugs and whires to bad gaskets, etc. that allow O2 leakage. However, the problem is nothing more than a crack in the weld on the exhaust pipe that leaks air into the exhaust system before the sensor, causing it to go off.

                  Secondly, last time I checked, I could buy manufacturer-specific computer equipment to diagnose cars from the manufacturers as a mechanic. Yes, the're about $600-700 a pop. (Snapon in turn sells a computer for that price and sells modules for each manufacturer for diagnosis).

                  Also, these performance maps and such you think aren't necessary...are. Why? because, during diagnosis, one of the things we look at is engine performance to verify that the engine isn't having trouble. The computer calculates and spits out performance data for the technician based on the information in the computer. No, we don't get to see all of the information on the chip directly, but for the sake of diagnosis, our tools have to be able to access it in the event that the car's performance is lagging behind what it should be and we have to diagnose it.

                  Thank you for our time.
            • by jandrese ( 485 ) * <> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:30PM (#8570289) Homepage Journal
              Wouldn't such a table be largely dependant on the geometry of the engine? It seems to me that unless the other guy is copying your engine design wholesale that the lookup tables should be of little use to them. In any light, that argument sounds like an excuse more than anything else.
            • by Cramer ( 69040 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:41PM (#8570428) Homepage
              This is not exactly true... modern cars have a "closed loop" system where various sensors feed data into the computer which it uses to tune engine parameters. Thus, the computer is "self learning"... about a decade ago, Ford recalled a number of Tempo's. They replaced the injector and downloaded the engine calibration data -- they used a federally mandated recall to collect this "millions of dollars" worth of data.

              In fact, it actually takes a mere afternoon to build the calibration data. It takes a fair bit of equipment (diag station, dynamo, etc.), but the process is rather simple. (that is, for those that know how to do it.)

              Ironic side discussion... the only real difference between the VW 1.8T engines (150hp and 180hp anyway) is the ECU programming. I can "upgrade" my engine with a serial cable :-)
              • by wskellenger ( 675359 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @05:55PM (#8572570) Homepage Journal
                In fact, it actually takes a mere afternoon to build the calibration data. It takes a fair bit of equipment (diag station, dynamo, etc.), but the process is rather simple. (that is, for those that know how to do it.)

                I work in vehicle development -- electronic braking systems.

                Our module interfaces directly with the engine controller, as we request a torque reduction during traction control events.

                It is entirely untrue that it takes a "mere afternoon" to build the calibration data. Testing is required at different altitudes and in different climates. You'll find auto testing going on everywhere from Wanaka, New Zealand (for wintery conditions in the middle of Michigan's summer) to Borrego Springs, California... Or up in Arvidsjaur, Sweden when it's -40. A dyno and a diagnostic tool won't do much to simulate these climates and altitude variations. Throw a trailer on the vehicle and you'd never sell a car that you validated using the method you describe. Depending on the maturity of the engine and the system as a whole (including sensors, fuel delivery systems, etc.) it takes at least a year, probably more like two years, to develop an engine calibration.

            • by sukotto ( 122876 )
              Someone made a pro-patent comment on slashdot and got +5 Insightful?

              It's not April 1st yet... what's going on here?

        • Re:I really miss.... (Score:5, Interesting)

          by cayenne8 ( 626475 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:54PM (#8569873) Homepage Journal
          I generally love anything new and techie...but, I really miss the days of simpler cars. I miss minimal computer control....large engines with tons of horsepower. Where if something went was mostly mechanical...and you could work on many things yourself. I miss when you could drive a stock car off the showroom floor...and it had enough power to smoke the tires for a couple of blocks....and they weren't all 'designed by computers'...the cars looked good and had individual personality. And...even a pretty powerful one was reasonably affordable to the majority of people....

          I often think that if you could get one car executive to take a 'chance'...and try the old idea behind the original GTO's and later other muscle cars...throw a monster engine into a decent body of a car...keep the interior minimalist...with real perfomance, and keep the price reasonable. I gotta think these things would sell like hotcakes...

          Oh long as we're dreaming here...I'd also like a pony...

          • Re:I really miss.... (Score:5, Interesting)

            by smittyoneeach ( 243267 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:03PM (#8569959) Homepage Journal
            You also handle the point that allowing users to get into the inner workings of their cars is not inherently evil.
            I foresee some argument along the lines of "If we do this, <insert terrrorist/criminal organization here> will be able to soup-up the performance of their cars, and escape capture.
            People working on their cars at low level resembles people working on Linux From Scratch, with the difference being that a core dump is only embarrassing, whereas an engine becoming several hundred flying sub-engines at the I95/I495 interchange, known with affection as 'the mixing bowl', could have substantial costs...
            I hope the safety gestapo doesn't win the argument.
            • Re:I really miss.... (Score:5, Interesting)

              by Rick the Red ( 307103 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:14PM (#8570091) Journal
              users to get into the inner workings of their cars is not inherently evil.
              Since the late 1970's this has been considered evil in the USA. The EPA mandated caps on the idle screws back then, and it's been downhill ever since. You really can't adjust anything under the hood anymore -- not like you used to. All in the name of keeping the air clean, which is a reasonable goal. And cars are better for it -- they don't need those adjustments anymore.
              I hope the safety gestapo doesn't win the argument.
              It's not the safety gestapo, it's the environmental gestapo, and they won the arguement 30 years ago.
          • by B'Trey ( 111263 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:06PM (#8569999)
            I'm not sure it's that simple. There are tons more regulations that manufacrurers must meet today - from safety regulations to pollution measures. Throwing a 440ci engine with a four barrel carb into a light car simply isn't possible anymore.
          • by Waffle Iron ( 339739 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:08PM (#8570015)
            You can get cars today with as much horsepower as ever. The main difference is that they produce far less pollution and get considerably better fuel economy as 60s muscle cars of similar proportions. They are also much safer, more reliable, easier to start, require less regular maintenence, and they automatically keep themselves in tune.

            To achieve all of this, computers had to be put in the cars. A car without computers wouldn't be competitive in today's market, and it wouldn't be able to produce high power outputs while staying within today's mandated pollution limits.

        • I have news for you, you don't need to obtain diddly to figure out how the part is made. You just take it apart and you figure out how it's shaped, build it in the cad package of your choice (say solidworks, no reason you couldn't use it) and then you can send off the drawings for quotes and have the parts made, assembled, packed, and shipped, all without leaving the comfort of your computer chair. All you need is some good measuring equipment, a decent computer, and the part.

          Fuel injectors, by the way, are not developed by automakers any more. Automakers go to someone and say hey, we need an injector with these dimensions that flows this much fuel and runs off this voltage, and they get a part back, they sign a contract agreeing to buy so many of them and to put however many of them into cars, and that's it. Furthermore a fuel injector is a dog-simple item which can be made better simply by throwing more money at it for better materials - it's just a solenoid valve. They usually run on 12 volts and they open and close in response to an electrical signal which is pulsed once for each opening. They are usually run at a single given pressure by the OEM and you can "trick" them (and your computer) by using a rising rate fuel pressure regulator, which is a popular way of doing a cheap turbo installation. As the boost rises, the fuel pressure rises, and more fuel is delivered. The next step up is to use a box that takes over fuel management for the computer, and/or tweaks the signal from the computer, and the final step is to replace the car's computer entirely. All of this stuff is done outside of the injector. The injector, as I have previously stated, is a simple device and high-rate injectors can be had for little more than OEM parts. Rebuilt OEM (270cc/min, I think, maybe it was 230?) for my car were $69, you can get new 370cc/min injectors for about $100 each. So Territo is full of horse shit, whoever he is. (Too lazy to RTFA, sorry, I'd rather spend my time ranting.)

          Also most of these parts are not complicated. No one owns the facts, so you just stick a thread pitch gauge in the hole, and measure the diameter, and you know what size the thing should be; You can hook up the part and test it using calibration equipment, another (known) sensor (which is calibration equipment of course), or you can build a new one from the specifications. Data sheets are available for automotive sensors, and factory service manuals will tell you the expected range of response from a sensor, most of which are resistance-based.

          Automakers quite simply want to hang onto the lucrative service market. Dealers charge more for service than practically anyone else, except for very high end establishments that specialize on working on exotic cars. For example there's a joint called Canepa's in Santa Cruz that bought, sold, and serviced rolls, lamborghini, ferrari and so on. But if you go to a dealer for your ordinary vehicle you generally pay 10-50% over the average service station for both parts and labor, and you don't necessarily get better service unless you bring in a really special car, which they tend to take seriously.

        • by Dogers ( 446369 ) * on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:31PM (#8570301)
          "A calibration code is what makes that part work, and that's the part that's proprietary," Territo said.
          "It's like the difference between an Apple microprocessor and an IBM microprocessor.

          Someone needs to let them in on a little IBM/Apple secret [] :)

      • by Rude Turnip ( 49495 ) <[valuation] [at] []> on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:44PM (#8569722)
        You can make bit-for-bit copies of any DVD now, complete with all the encryption on it. And the laws preventing the distribution of those DVDs (normal copyright law) has been on the books for a long, long time. If you follow the money, the bottom line is that the CSS and region codes on a DVD only help to support cartel price-fixing profits.
      • WRONG! (Score:5, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:45PM (#8569734)
        Some of you people just don't get it: DVD CSS has NOTHING to do with COPYING or the prevention thereof! You can make as many copies of a CSS'ed DVD as you want. CSS is all about who can play the DVD and where.
        • Re:WRONG! (Score:3, Informative)

          by Lord Ender ( 156273 )
          Wrong! You can only make copies of 4.7GB DVDs without decoding CSS. If you want to do a 9GB DVD, you need to decode the CSS and then reencode the video to fit on a 4.7GB DVD. This is because you can't buy 9GB DVD burners and black media today.
      • Um, I can make unlimited copies without the codes already. and pirate houses in china have been before DeCSS existed..

        tell me again how this is different cince I just shot down your entire argument.
      • by Mr. Slippery ( 47854 ) <tms AT infamous DOT net> on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:54PM (#8569871) Homepage
        The difference lies in the fact that with codes to your car, it can be serviced independently.

        With the codes to your DVD, you can make unlimited copies, and do anything and everything with them.

        Not correct. I can make unlimited copies of DVDs without any access to codes - just as I can make copies of a text written in German without being able to read that language. Mass bootlegging of DVDs happens this way already.

        CSS is all about controlling who gets to make DVD players. It does nothing to prevent copying.

      • by Lord Kano ( 13027 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:02PM (#8569947) Homepage Journal
        With the codes to your DVD, you can make unlimited copies, and do anything and everything with them.

        I can't speak a word of Polish, but given enough time I could make an exact copy of a book written in Polish.

        DVD encryption does not prevent copying, it prevents people from watching them with players that the DVDCA hasn't made any money off of.

    • by smittyoneeach ( 243267 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:39PM (#8569676) Homepage Journal
      I think the fact that the DVD is pure information and a car is a physical object, not subject to casual duplication, might be a difference, but who knows?
    • Why stop there? Why not just have Microsoft open up Windows so that we can all service it?
  • by whoda ( 569082 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:37PM (#8569646) Homepage
    Car companies will just encrypt everything with some stupid XOR scheme, and then claim DMCA protections.
  • by foxtrot ( 14140 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:37PM (#8569650)
    When the MPAA comes a callin' with their CSS encryption, the answer is the DMCA.

    But when it comes to open-standards for automobiles, they're all for it.

    Why won't they make up their minds?
    • by King_TJ ( 85913 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:40PM (#8569682) Journal
      Govt. is typically illogical.... IMHO, let them pass this one as law, and THEN hit them with the questioning about their logic on cars vs. DVD's.

      It's more leverage for us if it's already written into law.
    • by dspfreak ( 666482 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:42PM (#8569701)
      Because in this case, politicians were actually able to make the mental leap necessary to understand the analogy "Would you buy a car with the hood welded shut?"

      • Actually there is a Volvo concept car designed for women that does not allow you to open the hood without a special tool. It has a hole for gas, and a hole for windshield washer fluid. Anything more than that and you have to take it into the mechanic.

        It also has a pony-tail hole on the headrest, and an ungodly amount of storage room for a car its size.
    • by IndigoDarkwolf ( 752210 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:45PM (#8569742)
      There's an important difference you're overlooking: Nobody's getting shut out of the DVD player business.

      Seriously, how many legal car repair shops do you think there are? A million is most likely a conservative figure. The car computer legislation is happening because there are a lot of people in the car repair business, and have been in the car repair business for generations. But, suddenly (last few years) they've been unable to fix cars because they don't know the secret codes for the cars' computers.

      This isn't "I want everything, like MP3s and DVDs, for free". This is "I want to fsck-ing survive here.

    • MPAA == US organisation. Quite a lot of carmakers != US firms.

      See the difference? One one hand the US congress wants to protect the "intelectuall property" of americans, on the other hand it wants to open the "intelectual property" of other people (non US) to the carmechanics in the US... and possible to carmanufacturers in the US as well, but I think that might be an unintended sideeffect.

      While I see how this bill might benefit the small autoshops in the US (and possible elsewhere if this catches on),

      • I feel that a more ideal solution would be if the carmanufacturers could agree on one common interface to use

        The OBD-II interface actually is an industry standard that everyone agreed on - the problems arise because the standard allows for manufacturer-specific codes for stuff not explicitly covered in the general spec. Having some means of specifying the maker-specific stuff is necessary, since not all cars are the same and making the basic standard conform to everything it might encounter would make
  • by djh101010 ( 656795 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:39PM (#8569670) Homepage Journal
    I used to work for GE Medical Systems, and there was a similar case there. There is (or was?) a company out there doing third-party servicing of CAT and MRI scanners, place called "R-Squared". They took GE to court saying that we should share with them our service tools, because by not doing so it was unfairly excluding them from competing with us.

    Ended up having to make it possible for the competition to get our service tools, but I don't remember that we were required to make them available cheaply or quickly. Not sure how things are there today; knowing GE they probably would solve the problem by buying out the competitor.

    This really isn't much different than open-source vs closed-source though, is it...if the person selling it wants to lock you out of the internals, well, your choices include not buying from them.
    • by cgenman ( 325138 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:50PM (#8569815) Homepage
      This really isn't much different than open-source vs closed-source though, is it...if the person selling it wants to lock you out of the internals, well, your choices include not buying from them.

      #:apt-get install camaro
      No package by that name.
      #:apt-get install thunderbird
      Try "apt-get install firefox"
      #:apt-get install mini
      Downloading "mini-dinstall" from repos
      Process interrupted

      #:apt-get install pinto
      Warning: you are about to install package "pinto" from repository "" Do you wish to continue?


  • woo (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:39PM (#8569677)

    Congress to Automakers: "G1bb0rz u5 j00r l337 c0d3x0r5555!"
  • by another misanthrope ( 688068 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:40PM (#8569681)
    and posted on the web - like this site []
  • by rasafras ( 637995 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:41PM (#8569695) Homepage
    ...I'm afraid I can't do that.
  • Preach on, (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bob670 ( 645306 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:41PM (#8569696)
    had to take my car to the dealership this weekend because the shop down the block didn't know what the codes meant. Turns out it was a misaligned break caliper, cost me $225 at the dealership, would have been about $130 down the street.
    • Solution (Score:5, Insightful)

      by mark-t ( 151149 ) <markt@nerdfl[ ]com ['at.' in gap]> on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:49PM (#8569798) Journal
      Just tell them you need a quote... that you need to ensure that you have the money right now to be able to repair it.

      It's perfectly reasonable to, once they've given you the quote, to also tell you what all is wrong with your car. Tell them you'd need to think about it, as if this is going to put a bit of crimp in your budget for this month, and say you'll get back to them as soon as you've worked out the details.

      Trot down to your favorite small shop mechanic and ask him how much he'd charge to do exactly the job that the other guys said needed to get done. You tell him that the dealership has already given you a quote for $X, and the problem has been diagnosed by them. Odds are he'll undercut them. If not, just go back to the dealership... you're SOL.

      If your mechanic guy has offered to do the repairs, then you go back to the dealership and tell them that you just can't swing that kind of money this month. Then you take your car to little guy's shop and have it repaired there.

      Funny thing is, if enough people did this, the little guys would learn what the diagnosis codes meant because they'd get customers coming in telling them what was already wrong, and the mechanics could start matching up codes to real problems.

      Now the question is, is the above method, using strictly social engineering, still considered a violation of the DMCA?

      • Re:Solution (Score:5, Insightful)

        by hawkbug ( 94280 ) <psx@fimb l e .com> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:01PM (#8569936) Homepage
        Problem with that theory is that the Dealership will usually charge you $75 to hook up the computer - when all they are doing is plugging in a damn cable and firing up the reader. Only then will you know what is wrong, after paying $75. Seems like extorition....
      • Re:Solution (Score:3, Informative)

        by bobthemuse ( 574400 )
        Doesn't work... most shops (at least in the northeast where I am) will charge a minimum diagnostic fee that you have to pay, even for a quote. Some will apply this towards the cost of work if you go with them. At $50-$150, depending on garage and make/model, it's a perfect example of what the independent repair shops are complaining about.
      • by gosand ( 234100 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:29PM (#8570279)
        Just tell them you need a quote... that you need to ensure that you have the money right now to be able to repair it. It's perfectly reasonable to, once they've given you the quote, to also tell you what all is wrong with your car. Tell them you'd need to think about it, as if this is going to put a bit of crimp in your budget for this month, and say you'll get back to them as soon as you've worked out the details.

        Riiiight. Cause they're stupid and don't know people will try this. That must be why a lot of dealerships charge a "diagnostic fee" that you have to agree to (check the fine print) before they'll look at your car. The same reason they will waive that fee when they find $900 worth of repairs that you "need".

        Best place to find car info - Had our Jetta freak out, alarm was sounding, anti-theft wouldn't let us start the car. Took it to an independent mechanic, they couldn't find anything, and the problem had gone away. Before I went to pick it back up, I did a quick search on Found it. I called them up, talked to the tech, and said "check the wiring harness that goes to the rear door. Open the rear door, pull back the rubber boot, and see if there are any stripped or worn wires." There were 3 wires that were cut and a couple more were stripped. I guess the wiring harness on those cars was just a little too short, and eventually they would wear out. I could have spliced the wires myself, but I had dealt with this shop before and they are good guys. And I could have them do it while I was at work. But without those newsgroups, it probably would have happened to me again and again and again, and would have cost me a lot of diagnostic time.

        Ahh the internet - is there anything it can't do?

  • by Gr8Apes ( 679165 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:42PM (#8569698)

    They should have always required opening up of these interfaces. The owner pretty much has to take the word of a very small select group of "in the know" mechanics on what condition their car is in. And we all know how trustworthy the average local mechanic/dealer mechanic is (do a google for Jiffy Lube, Sears, etc, and auto mechanics and lawsuits)

    Then I recall my own wonderful personal experience. I had engine fluctuation issues in a turbo charged car. 15 trips to the dealer (under warranty) and replacement of virtually ever sensor and the car's computer failed to rectify the sporadic condition. The car had a computer interface, and it was telling them... well, I don't know what it was telling them - I couldn't access the interface....

    Long story short though, one day, the engine started having RPM fluctuations while idling, so I popped open the hood and, since I hadn't been running long nor very hard, decided to take a quick look at the intercooler fluid level. I just happened to notice as I pulled out the intercooler cap that the float bob sensor attached to said cap was sunk to the bottom, even though the intercooler level was fine. I bypassed this sensor and all was fine for the next 100K miles. Odds are I'd have found this more quickly if I could have hooked up a computer to the interface to diagnose the problem while it was happening.

  • The proposed law can only be a good thing. With more and more of everyday life becoming computerized, such codes could be used to shut people out from everything from their cars to their washing machines.

    The principle point here is: Does the public have the right to access and repair of their own violation property they have paid for? This can readily be applied to almost any manufactured good in the future. Let's face it, how many things do you buy anymore that aren't controlled by computer code?
  • by henrygb ( 668225 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:45PM (#8569737)
    The car industry provides two areas of profit (and one of loss) 1. Making and selling the car - a loss 2. Financing the sale of a car - a profit 3. Servicing and repairing the car - a profit Finance is a competitive industry, so the profits are small. Servicing can be turned into a monopoly, so is it any surprise the car makers are doing so? Politicians know how to shakedown an industry - threatening to regulate it and forcing competition is not uncommon. For some as yet unknown reason, the threats are not always carried out.
  • Election Year (Score:5, Insightful)

    by N8F8 ( 4562 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:45PM (#8569741)
    This sounds like an election year doggy treat. Pass it in the House and kill it in the Senate.
  • by Star_Gazer ( 25473 ) * on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:47PM (#8569762)
    ... Territo said. "It's like the difference between an Apple microprocessor and an IBM microprocessor."

    Hmmh, and I thought Apples G5 Microprocessors come from IBM...

  • Good For Me (Score:4, Interesting)

    by LighthouseJ ( 453757 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:48PM (#8569774)
    If this works for previous model years instead of just new models, I'll be really happy. There's a small but loyal group of people like me that are trying to get a supercharger for our car. A company has quoted if they could produce it, the supercharger could conservatively raise the car from 174hp to ~260hp (300 lb-ft torque) thanks to a solid engine. The physical supercharger is the same as any others, but the problem is that no one has been able to crack the Hitachi (I think) computer so the programming knows about a supercharger and doesn't compensate for it negatively.
  • Obvious Answer? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by oyenstikker ( 536040 ) <<gro.enrybs> <ta> <todhsals>> on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:49PM (#8569799) Homepage Journal
    People are diliberately confusing 'codes' and 'code'. Mechanics need the _codes_ that the computer spits out indicating what is wrong. Nobody needs the _code_ for the computer software.

    As for the whole complaint about the recent complexity of cars; it is government mandated and consumer demanded. There are requirements for fuel efficiency and emissions. A simple 4 stroke engine can only be so effecient and so clean. To meet regulations, cars need to incorporate exhaust gas recirculation, variable cam timing, complex variable spark timing, catylitic converters, and a host of other complexities. Consumers want climate control, adaptive suspension, 17 way power adjustable seats, power cupholders, remote buttons for everything, heated everything, and performance, but they expect their cars to have the simplicity of an air cooled VW?
    • Re:Obvious Answer? (Score:3, Interesting)

      by psykocrime ( 61037 )
      To meet regulations, cars need to incorporate exhaust gas recirculation, variable cam timing, complex variable spark timing, catylitic converters, and a host of other complexities.

      Not true. I don't have specifics handy, but I've read quite a few tales of performance enthusiasts putting together vehicles that could easily pass the tailpipe emissions tests, without ANY of the factory "smog" equipment. And I'm talking carbureted, 350 ci, small-block chevy engines at that.

      This is one reason why performance
  • by Gnasty ( 14533 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:53PM (#8569849)
    If you take this quote from the article:

    "You don't want technology to destroy competitiveness," said Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who offered one of the bills. "There's no reason ... you shouldn't be able to take your car to anyone you want rather than there being only one option."

    and change two words, you get:

    "You don't want technology to destroy competitiveness," said Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., who offered one of the bills. "There's no reason ... you shouldn't be able to take your music to any player you want rather than there being only one option."

    I wonder how Sen. Graham voted on some other issue?
  • by Mister Transistor ( 259842 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:55PM (#8569882) Journal
    I used to work for Sun Electric (now Snap-On), designing engine and emission diagnostic analyzers.

    The "secret" diagnostic codes are published. The Chilton's repair guides for cars list the error codes for each car and manufacturer. Also, the factory service manuals for those cars have the codes and their meanings listed.

    I love Cadillacs, though, because you can press "OFF" and "WARMER" on the Climate Control panel and it will list the codes on the display there! Then you can do the repairs at home yourself!

    You can also go buy a $500.00 Snap-on ALDL analyzer (Assembly Line Diagnostic Link) and it will list the codes too. The newer vehicles call this OBD-2 (Onboard Diagnostics, V2).

    Finally, there is some software out there (Payware, IIRC) that will list the codes on a PC or laptop, but you need to build an RS-232 to ALDL level converter for it (or buy the software with the appropriate dongle).
  • Too slow... (Score:5, Informative)

    by dcm1101 ( 71726 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:56PM (#8569890)
    Heh - I was about to submit this story. I can add a link to the actual bill, though: H.R. 2735 []. And, if you happen to be a US voter reading this, go here [], find your representatives, and tell them that you support the Motor Vehicle Owners' Right to Repair Act of 2003. Perhaps hint to them that the same rationale could be applied to other things that consumers buy, and might want to fix at some point. Perhaps suggest that, really, some sort of comprehensive Consumers Bill of Rights [] could be in order. Just a thought.
  • by Stevyn ( 691306 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:59PM (#8569916)
    You can't directly compare this to the DMCA because when you're talking about music, movies, and software, you're talking about 1's and 0's that can be copied over and over. They're talking about codes to ensure fairness in repairing automobiles so the dealers don't steal all the business. The reason congress is stepping in is because no one is going to put their 2004 Explorer on kazaa and share it. They're not talking about opening up all the software. This isn't about open source at all, it's about knowing what is wrong with the care based on the error code the computer spits out.
  • by FerretFrottage ( 714136 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:03PM (#8569968) was called Knight Rider. Just have all the automakers create autos that can talk and tell you the diagnostic/problem information. Take it a step further....sell advertising in the information.

    "Michael, the left tire is running low and I've already told you 10 times. Why do you ignore me Michael? I let you into my hood on the first date. Oh look Michael, a Discount Tire shop; that would hit he spot, plus the tire tech has a nice big wrench...can we stop?"

  • MS APIs? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by gr8_phk ( 621180 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:04PM (#8569979)
    So why does MS get to keep secrets about the Windows API?
  • Dishwashers too! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by avkillick ( 698274 ) <avkillick&yahoo,com> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:08PM (#8570018) Homepage
    Saturday last, a repairman came over from Sear's to do a prev maintenance on our dishwasher. All he did was hook up a laptop to a connection inside the machine - executed a few diagnostics and left 3 minutes later! The bill was $114 - but cost us nothing under the warranty.
  • Check Engine light (Score:4, Informative)

    by emkman ( 467368 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:12PM (#8570073)
    Hmm Check Engine. OK. :opens hood: Yep, got an engine, Check!

    Cant remember the comedian, but oh well. Seriously though, certain brands of cars(cough cough Ford) are known for having the check engine light come on when a sensor in the car is being pissy, maybe cause it was cold or your wheel was slipping, even if there is nothing wrong with your engine. Once it comes on, the only way to turn it off is to take it to a mechanic who will charge you 60$ to reset the light and tell you he doesnt see any problems. Or you can just disconnect the battery for minute, but you lose your radio station presets. I don't see why this is such a big deal though. Seems like its pretty easy to get a code reader []. Hell the base model is less than 200$, might be good to get one just to play with. Not to mention all the codes can be looked up right here []. For 25$ a year you can even use AllData [] to diagnose problems with your car based on the codes, and be updated on service and recall bulletins. Interesting note at the bottom though: Note: Currently, information is available for Model Years 1982 to 2002. 2003 Model Year information is scheduled to be released this winter. Unfortunately, information for Honda, Acura and BMW is not available to consumers through ALLDATA DIY by request of the manufacturers.
  • This great! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by theLOUDroom ( 556455 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:13PM (#8570077)
    As someone who's part-way through the 100+ hour task of reverse engineering the computer in his '86 Mazda RX-7, I can say this truely is a great thing.

    The are all kind of problems that are extremly difficult or impossible to diagnose and solve without the ability to REALLY talk to a car's computer.

    I think most people don't realize just how much is coming under control of the car's computer these days. It used to be the computer just controlled the injectors, then it was spark. Now the computer might also control your ABS, traction control, regulator-less fuel system, electric power steering. In many modern cars (A 2000 Corvette would be an example) there isn't even a direct link between the throttle body and the gas pedal anymore. The gas pedal has a sensor and the TB has an actuator.

    The government needs to junk ODBII and come up with a totally new approach. They allowed too many manufacturer-specfic exceptions, and made it require too much special hardware.

    ODBII deliberately uses a nonstandard baud rate, to make it difficult to interface with a PC. The result of this is that an application (with cable) to read codes with your laptop will cost you $100+ instead of the $40 it should.
    It's damn frustrating to have to buy a $160 computer to tell you that you car needs a $5 set of spark plugs. (It would have cost $70 just to get a shop to tell me the same thing).

    A new interface should be designed that is a standard serial port, and allows for VERY few "undocumented" codes.
  • by Pointy_Hair ( 133077 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:17PM (#8570127)
    The usefulness of the proprietary data stream is overstated. I think it was in 94 that the first on-board diagnistic spec (OBD) appeared in mass production. Everyone was crying about it at the time. Amazingly, independent repair shops are still in business. Since then there have been refinements, but it basically defines a standard interface and subset data stream required on all production cars in the US. With an OBD capable scan tool and the proper manuals, any tech can diagnose any problem with any car. There might be a more robust data stream available to the dealer mechanic, but the true value of that extra data is trivial IMO.

    I left a 10 year career in auto repair (part of that post-OBD), where my specialty was driveability and electrical. The truly skilled technicians understand the system and don't necessarily depend on a particular tool to get their work done. An old-style analog oscilloscope is more valuable to a tech than any proprietary scan tool. The challenge is the diminishing number of techs that would know what to do with one.
  • WTF!?!? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by mynameis (mother ... ( 745416 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:19PM (#8570146)
    What are they talking about!?!?

    I'm a gear head. I know lots of geeks who are gear heads. I, however, have never encountered a problem due to inability to access 'calibration codes'.

    I know that you can hook your laptop up to your OBDI/II based vehicle. What can ya do?
    -monitor telemetry in real time [RPM,Throttle position, timing, fuel inject pulse lengths, etc.]
    -read error codes stored in computer [terse format]
    -reprogram the computer[really the data on which decisions are made, not the heuristics themselves]*

    *You can't change stuff on earlier computers! Must be that we don't have the 'calibration code' to make a PROM into an EEPROM?!

    Seriously though! What you need to 'know' to fix a car is:

    Interface specification

    Table of error/condition codes and triggering parameters.

    Wiring diagrams, mechanical diagrams, parts lists, etc.

    how modern cars work

    From what I understand, the Interfaces are standardized [think ISO,IEEE, not RFC]. The error codes, and at least short descriptions, are available. The diagrams, etc. are available via repair manuals/KB Systems. I know that at least some manufacturers publish/authorize official such products. As for knowledge, can't legislate that:)

    What information is being withheld that makes non-dealer repair impossible?

    And what are 'calibration codes'?
    • Re:WTF!?!? (Score:5, Interesting)

      by theLOUDroom ( 556455 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:39PM (#8570403)
      What information is being withheld that makes non-dealer repair impossible?

      The issue is that ODBII is a pathetic subset of the real information avaible. In some cases it's useless (diagnosing climate controls, etc), in other cases it just a LOT less information than the dealer-specfic compter would provide.

      Obviously not having it doesn't make non-dealer repair impossible, but it does make it a lot harder. If you knew nothing about cars you could just replace parts until you find the right thing but it this the right way to do it?

      The point here is that independent shops are being put at a severe disadvantage by being provided only a minimal subset of the availible data.
  • by glassesmonkey ( 684291 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:36PM (#8570349) Homepage Journal
    This should be more obvious what is going on here.. There is no stronger lobby (maybe tobacco) than the American tradition of the automobile, if Congress passes anything it will be with their approval. These are the same people that passed DMCA & Patriot, don't be fooled into thinking they are EVER going to do anything that large, rich corporations wouldn't approve of.

    US Airline industry

    failing miserably ..

    terrorists ..

    Congress bails out whole industry ..

    Industry still hasn't fixed business model


    financially in trouble ..

    blame pirates, hackers, p2p..

    Lawmakers pass all sorts of laws, Judges pass all sorts of sentences..

    Industry still hasn't fixed business model

    US Automakers

    future seems uncertain ... floating 0% financing schemes

    blame the forced opening of proprietary interfaces, blame car-computer hackers

    Congress soon to bail out troubling industry ?? (or at least the retirement funds)??

    Industry still hasn't fixed business model

  • Wow! (Score:3, Funny)

    by dentar ( 6540 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:38PM (#8570387) Homepage Journal
    If this passes, then congress will make history by ACTUALLY DOING SOMETHING SMART!!
  • by alazar ( 463253 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:40PM (#8570411) Journal
    Would it not make even more sense to simply have a small display in the dash that translates the codes into english. This is what should be mandated. It would not cost much more than what is there now and would be far more useful, for all. I'm sure that dealership mechanics have to look up the codes.

    Look, if they want to continue to compete with other mechanics then they should do so by providing service as good as my independent does.
  • Amen! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by turtles11 ( 667466 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:48PM (#8570512) Homepage
    I agree! It used to be that the average mom & pop or even home enthusiast could purchase the "decoding" machines or the books that translated the engine light codes. Those days ended around 1992, I believe. As a car enthusiast and do-it-yourselfer, it's irritating as hell to have to pay an exorbitant fee to some dealer just to tell me what the computer THINKS is wrong with my car. 9 times out of 10, it's just some sensor somewhere that is malfunctioning and needs replacing. Usually, if the sensor weren't there, the car would run fine, too. I'll take my good-old v8 any day over cars with 50 million sensors that go bad.
  • shade tree mech (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rodentia ( 102779 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @03:06PM (#8570696)
    This is good news for those of us who like to tinker with our cars, too. A while back I looked into available OSS interfaces to various models. It was a moot search. You ought to be able to plug your friggin' car into the serial port of your laptop and run diagnostics on emissions, compression, etc., as a matter of course.

    It should also be noted that legislation addressing this issue was originally championed by the late Sen. Paul Wellstone of MN.

    It should also remind us how close we are to similarly prescribed access to the internals of a general purpose computer. Wouldn't some interests like to see a *No user serviceable parts inside. Opening case voids any warranties or EULAs associated with this machine.* sticker on your next box.
  • by ChaosDiscord ( 4913 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @04:29PM (#8571591) Homepage Journal

    Reputable people don't need access to their car's computers. If you want access you must be a thief of some sort. Oh, some Free Car/Open Car hippy here will whine "But I want to be able to repair my own car," or "I want to be able to hire a third party to repair my car." Yeah, right. Most people can't fix their own cars, having the ability to open the hood and work on their car is totally worthless. Letting the millions of thieves in just so that a few freaks can try (and probably fail) to fix their own cars is unacceptable. Only the original manufacturer can really fix it. Fortunately I think we can expect to see EDLA (End Driver License Agreements) that will make this nice and clear to everyone.

"I prefer the blunted cudgels of the followers of the Serpent God." -- Sean Doran the Younger