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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 another misanthrope ( 688068 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @12:40PM (#8569681)
    and posted on the web - like this site []
  • by Rude Turnip ( 49495 ) <valuation@gmai[ ]om ['l.c' in gap]> on Monday March 15, 2004 @12:44PM (#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 @12:45PM (#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.
  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @12:47PM (#8569758) Homepage
    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.
  • Re:volvo? (Score:2, Informative)

    by RedShoeRider ( 658314 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @12:49PM (#8569797)
    Sure, the hood might be welded shut, but on the majority of cars the OBD-II port is somewhere in the cabin.

    Volvo, for instance, in their 850/S70/C70 line, it's under the change tray, right by your right (if you have a left-hand-drive car) knee.

  • by Mr. Slippery ( 47854 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2004 @12:54PM (#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.

  • Re:volvo? (Score:2, Informative)

    by subjectstorm ( 708637 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @12:54PM (#8569875) Journal
    no. no they weren't.

    if i recall correctly, that was a concept car designed "by women for women". A bit sexist perhaps; certainly ridiculous - but hey, go girl power.

    Volvo explicitly stated in the article that they had neither the desire nor the intent to ever place that vehicle into production.
  • by Mister Transistor ( 259842 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @12:55PM (#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 @12:56PM (#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 Mr. Slippery ( 47854 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2004 @12:57PM (#8569900) Homepage
    Nobody's getting shut out of the DVD player business.

    Perhaps you missed the whole DeCSS [] issue? "Without licensed DVD players for Linux and other operating systems, an entire class of computer users is completely cut off from viewing DVDs."

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2004 @12:58PM (#8569903)
    It is not true to say that the diagnostic is
    Take CAT for instance, it is true that there
    is a proprietary protocol for diagnostic but
    they also broadcast a lot of information on
    either J1587 or J1939. GM broadcasts diagnostic
    on J1850. Daimler broadcast on J1587 and J1939.

    The information on these protocols are easy to get.

    I write diagnostic for trucks and I don't need
    any proprietary information except for the tire pressure controller.

    Most engines, ABS and transmissions use the
    SAE standards.
  • Re:Lies, I tell you. (Score:3, Informative)

    by travisd ( 35242 ) <travisd@tubas. n e t> on Monday March 15, 2004 @12:58PM (#8569906) Homepage
    OBD Only tells you emissions related stuff - generally engine codes. That's only one of serveral systems that talks on the car's network. Others deal with things like Chassis issues (HVAC and the like) and major systems like ABS that aren't mandated to be released to the public like the emissions stuff that OBD (I, II) cover. This is what the mechanics need access too to fix many problems.

  • Re:Lies, I tell you. (Score:2, Informative)

    by pyite ( 140350 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:01PM (#8569933)
    You're only partially correct. OBD-II is only the lowest common denominator. Vehicles can have OBD-II access, but that might only tell half the story. Volkswagen (and related brands, Audi, etc), for instance, has a dealer tool known as a VAG-COM which allows more intrusive diagnostics. The actual VAG-COM is very expensive, however, you can purchase software for Windows that does all of the VAG-COM's functions. The point here is that there's nothing stopping manufacturers from locking out non-dealer tools and getting away with it by providing a rudimentary OBD-II interface that doesn't really tell the whole story or provide 100% functionality.
  • Re:Lies, I tell you. (Score:5, Informative)

    by tgd ( 2822 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:01PM (#8569937)
    Virtyally none of the diagnosic capabilities in modern cars are accessible via OBD-II.

    Every manufacturer has proprietary networks built into the car of which OBD-II is a tiny emulation layer. Its designed for emissions testing and emissions related codes, nothing else.

    You can't diagnose why your power locks aren't working with it, you can't diagnose why your HVAC controls aren't working. You can't read exhaust gas temperatures, or any other direct sensor outputs. You can't bleed ABS pumps with it, etc, etc, etc.

    There are VERY few models you can get that sort of information about. Volkswagen/Audi group cars have some diagnostic software available, but virtually 100% of the information about what you can access and what sort of tests you can run have been reverse engineered, and is very incomplete. VAG also recently changed their protocols for newer cars to block those systems from working.

    You may have watched mechanics sweat this stuff, but some of us sweat this stuff directly. This is coming from the direct experience of someone who both repairs cars and works for a internationally ranked professional racing team.
  • Simple Solution (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:02PM (#8569952)
    Ask you car dealer if full repair specs can be included with the purchase of your vehicle. Most dealrs won't have a clue, or refuse. But a large number of cars do in fact have the info. I was looking into buying a toyota Prius (obviously in the must talk to the computer kind of cars). The dealer gave me some dumb answer about how no auto mechanic could service a prius due to the high tech. I have news for him. When the internal combustion engine was developed, it was high tech, nobody knew how to service one. People learned! It turns out that you can buy the full prius service manual. I'm sure it has steps like "plug the toyotamaticdebugger2000 into the toyotaport2004" but at least the manual is available, unlike what the dealer said.
  • Re:I really miss.... (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:07PM (#8570006)
    You could still get a muscle car for a reasonable price right up until GM stopped making F bodies in 2002. Also, all that hard to work on techie stuff really helps. The 1998 Camaro Z28 was (and may still be) the fastest and quickest stock Camaro/Firebird ever made (that includes those 454 ci monsters). At about 330 horsepower (290 at the rear wheels) in a light body it'll run like a scalded dog. I'll be keeping mine forever (or perhaps a bit longer).
  • Re:Solution (Score:5, Informative)

    by barzok ( 26681 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:09PM (#8570024)
    AutoZone in most locations (not California, though, last I heard) will plug in an OBD-II scanner and read & translate your codes for free.
  • Check Engine light (Score:4, Informative)

    by emkman ( 467368 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:12PM (#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.
  • Re:Solution (Score:3, Informative)

    by bobthemuse ( 574400 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:14PM (#8570096)
    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 Pointy_Hair ( 133077 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:17PM (#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.
  • by djh101010 ( 656795 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:20PM (#8570166) Homepage Journal
    ...the difference between the "turbo" and the "standard" engine is a software patch and $20 in parts.

    Gee, and here I thought it would be the presense of a _turbocharger_. Second post already that thinks a turbo is a piece of software rather than hardware. I don't know of anyone marketing a car as being turbocharged who isn't using a physical device called a turbocharger. []
  • Re:Solution (Score:2, Informative)

    by phasm42 ( 588479 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:22PM (#8570189)
    The high price is due to the codes being secret -- I know the owner of a small car repair shop, and he can't afford to buy the special codes and the reader equipment. The companies charge thousands of dollars for the stuff -- and then you have to get expensive updates every year too. Part of the reason the dealership charges so much is probably because they were charged ridiculous prices for them. It's bullshit, because the reader is basically like a troubleshooting manual for the car. They don't contain detailed inner workings of the engine, it's just routine stuff like status of valves, RPMs, detected problems, etc -- something more detailed than a "Check Engine" light. And the readers aren't very sophisticated either, probably little more than a serial port on some cars. This same stuff applies to repair information on cars. Repair references such as Mitchell-On-Demand are basically just collections of diagrams from various manufacturers, but cost thousands of dollars to purchase. And really, it's not much more than a detailed manual, which you'd think would come with the car, which would make it available to small shops.
  • Re:I really miss.... (Score:2, Informative)

    by AmazingRuss ( 555076 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:29PM (#8570274)
    They did that in '98...the Z28 Camaro. I had one...24k all tricked out with a 305hp LS1 engine. The thing was a MONSTER, and got about 24mpg with me rodding it all over the place.

    Unfortunately the insurance killed me...$350/month. I had to get rid of it.

    I guess this is why they didn't sell like hotcakes.

    God I miss that car!
  • Re:Solution (Score:3, Informative)

    by the_mad_poster ( 640772 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:38PM (#8570388) Homepage Journal

    Most cars will set off some other indicator when you do that. I know a guy that pulled the bulb on a Probe before he sold it. The airbag light started blinking endlessly. Pulled that (smart) and the door chime wouldn't shut off. Cut the wiring to that and it finally stopped all the warnings, but some day somebody with that Probe is going to wonder why they have no door chime and why two lights don't light up when the car turns on.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:45PM (#8570470)
    My Saturn was just serviced this weekend at the dealer for a slipping clutch at 29900 miles. Turns out oil was leaking onto the clutch and that wore out the rotor...

    Anyway, if I had gotten it serviced outside of the dealer I would have been out of a car for more than a day, would have had to pay (as this was covered by warranty), and I wouldn't have had any large corporation to complain to if there was shitty work done.

    Free rental car, free labor/parts, and less than 24 hours later I had my car.
  • by Rip!ey ( 599235 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:46PM (#8570473)
    The car had a computer interface, and it was telling them... well, I don't know what it was telling them ...

    I spent ten years between 1988 and 1998 working as an apprentice and technician for automotive dealerships in Australia.

    Early generations of onboard diagnostic systems were relatively simple. Access to the codes that were generated by signals responding in an odd manner or operating outide of tolerance was usually a simple matter of bridging a connection somewhere and using an LED in series with a resistor to read them, or some other similar manner. I have books, produced by third parties, full of the codes that are generated by the hundreds of vehicles out there. Access to these codes has never been a problem.

    Later generations have changed all that. The diagnostics now have some very cool abilities like the ability to monitor and record multiple IO signals in realtime. This in turn requires the use of the manufacturers own diagnostic equipment which also doubles as the code reader. Generally speaking, simple methods to access those codes are no longer provided except where the manufacturers are required to.

    One thing however has not changed, and that is what the codes tell us. They are nothing more than a compass that points the technician in a direction. Specific parts of the system still requires thorough testing to locate the actual cause any problems. If a code is registered that identifies a particular sensor input as faulty, the fault itself may well lie somewhere in the system other than in the sensor itself.
  • Re:WRONG! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Lord Ender ( 156273 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @01:53PM (#8570562) Homepage
    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.
  • by idiotnot ( 302133 ) <> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:01PM (#8570648) Homepage Journal
    In many places, the car then becomes illegal for street use. And many engines simply won't work with a carburateor these days because the computer systems control more than just fuel delivery. My vehiche only has a stub with a sensor in the place where the distributor is supposed to go, and they removed the casting for the mechanical fuel pump on the same engine in 1987. Throwing a carb on it would take a butt ton of work, and probably cost more than replacing all the electronics.
  • by HoneyBunchesOfGoats ( 619017 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:10PM (#8570743)
    In the case you point to, the method to access the error codes is listed in the factory service manual (I know because I own some); these can be bought by anybody. The method to get the codes is in most cases turning the ignition key ON-OFF-ON-OFF-ON and watching the pattern of a blinking light. The codes are listed in a table in the manual. Chrysler just made it relatively simple to get the engine codes; reverse engineering was not involved at all.
  • Re:shade tree mech (Score:2, Informative)

    by doppleganger871 ( 303020 ) <nothanks@nocont a c t . o rg> on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:21PM (#8570854) Homepage Journal
    I already run my own diagnostics, it's called the OBD-I or OBD-II diagnostics. A good scan tool, like the Auto X-Ray, will let you monitor every sensor in the vehicle, and do testing. I can't program changes with it, just figure out what's not right. Works fine, no issues, nothing blow'd up.
  • Re:WTF!?!? (Score:2, Informative)

    by Spirilis ( 3338 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:23PM (#8570868)
    "-reprogram the computer" ... What car is this? I've never heard of OBD-II allowing people to change ECU parameters, besides clearing any existing trouble codes. Besides that, I haven't heard of OBD-II software that includes a feature for setting ECU values.

    At least on newer Nissans, you can program the ECU via the OBD-II port, but only using their proprietary Consult-II device. I'd love to see someone reverse-engineer that puppy and write some software to enable Consult-II functionality on a laptop or Palm.
  • by j-turkey ( 187775 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:30PM (#8570941) Homepage
    But how are they going to know what's in your car? Its not like they open the hood and check compression ratios, etc on cars that do inspections.

    Actually, they do check these things (this tends to vary wildly from state to state). Under the hood, there is a description of all of the original emmissions equipment. It's also in print. It's pretty easy to see what's been done, especially when there's a big-ass carburatur sitting on top of your intake header. I'm not quite sure what the details are -- but one way or the other, it's gotta pass emmissions (including a rolling dyno in an an increasing number of states). It's getting difficult to get old cars (or new cars with old equipment) to meet new-car standards.

    If you've got an old car that you like to drive as you restore -- stay out of VA. They check everything. For example, if you have foglights, they have to work or the wiring needs to be cut all the way back to the harness. Lame.

  • by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:33PM (#8570964)
    Out of curiosity, what has changed with the K-series engines that would make things difficult for a DIYer such as myself?

    I have an Integra with a B18B1 engine, and I've always wondered what people were complaining about when talking about servicing computerized cars; I've never had to do any work at the dealer, and I've done all the maintenance required: valve clearance adjustments, timing belt changes, etc.
  • Re:shade tree mech (Score:3, Informative)

    by YrWrstNtmr ( 564987 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @02:58PM (#8571188)
    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.

    Trivial []. You just need to spend a dollar or two for the interface. Various places have a Win or Linux program for free. Others even show you how to write your own interface. All you need is the cable.

    Friend of mine has one, and I fixed a random overheating problem by finding out cyl 2 & 6 were misfiring. Cleared the idiot light, and saved myself about $500 in new waterpump and troubleshooting.
  • by CNERD ( 121095 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @03:22PM (#8571514) Homepage
    They were not reverse engineered. Even the chilton manuals for those cars tell you how to get the codes. It's a well known method. It works on most Chrysler fuel injected cars and trucks. Key forward 3 times.
  • if your car has OBD-2 go to and buy the cable for it. I do this when I have to pull error codes for diagnostics on my honda. this works with any US vechile 1996 or newer. There are a few things I have to take it to the dealer for though, such as if I needed to have my immobilizer reprogrammed for my ignition keys, or stuff dealing with the airbags. But 99% of the other things I can do myself without the dealer with the use of the cable and a notebook PC.
  • Re:This great! (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday March 15, 2004 @04:57PM (#8572593)
    No. ISO K-line uses a bit rate of 10400 bps. A PC UART will do 10472 bps which is within the spec for the protocol.

    You can build your own interface with one transistor, a couple of diodes and a few resistors.

    Also, the "undocumented" codes are well documented in the SAE Recommended Practice for Diagnostic Codes. All of the automotive companies I've worked for have used this.

    The protocol (whether it be ISO-K, J1850 etc) are all covered by SAE and/or ISO standards. J1979 is a good place to start.
  • by lcsjk ( 143581 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @05:16PM (#8572787)
    My Mitsubishi Diamonte is 10 years old. Nearest dealer is 40 mi. Towing cost $100. Local shop cannot access computer after 10 years. I have to take time from work and rent a car if I need anything that requires access to the on-board computer. After an auto is no longer in warranty, the codes should be released IMHO, but I do like the idea of me owning everything necessary to keep my car in best operating condition - All diagnostics should be available to my choice of service shop. (Dealer quoted $3000 for total service and repairs. Local shop repaired for $300. - computer not needed for main repairs.) Go Figure!
  • by SavXMorlock ( 752636 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @05:16PM (#8572788)
    If you are running a repair shop adn do not invest in the scan tools for the most common vehicles you service, then you are in teh wrong business. Chrysler, GM and Ford all have their scan tools available for sale. As a Service Technician, you also should be able to diagnose many problems without a scan tool. Most ASE certified technicians are pretty proficient with diagnosing problems before they get a scan tool out. Furthermore, a scan tool trouble code may only be present when something affects the emission controls on a vehicle, not on all system failures (Such as the cited automatic climate controls.) Additionally, sites like Alldata ( have full service manuals available online to troubleshoot vehicles up to the current year. Tehre is no secret to this stuff, it's just getting educated about where to find your information. As as side note, the newer Chrysler vehicles equipped with the digital odometer will display OBDII Trouble codes without a scan tool.
  • by uspsguy ( 541171 ) on Monday March 15, 2004 @10:20PM (#8575284) Homepage
    Snap-On can easily supply you with a device to read SOME or even MOST of the codes. The issue here is that the OEMs have access to additional stuff far beyond the OBDII mandated outputs. The additional data allows the authorized dealer to diagnose more accurately and quickly. That gives the dealer an unfair advantage over the independant repair shop.
  • Re:Solution (Score:3, Informative)

    by adamjaskie ( 310474 ) on Tuesday March 16, 2004 @02:24AM (#8576330) Homepage
    Yeah, I was getting a check engine light, and the car was almost stalling when I was at stop lights. I took it to autozone, they hooked it up, "EGR Pintle Position Error." I bought an EGR valve gasket and a can of carb cleaner, pulled off the EGR valve, it was all full of soot, cleaned it off with the carb cleaner, and put it back on with the new gasket. Not a problem since. Total cost: $8.

    Car companies should not abuse their powers by making proprietary codes nobody can read. Otherwise, I would have had to go to the dealer, and probably pay $200 for someone to do the same damn thing I did myself for $8.

I bet the human brain is a kludge. -- Marvin Minsky