Opening the car to American ingenuity

Car enthusiasts rejoice!

Late last month, the U.S. Copyright Office quietly issued their new rules on exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA). Among other exemptions in the 81-page document, the Office decided that tinkering with vehicle software was permissible by law, as long as the alterations did not cause the vehicle to violate state or federal regulations. Starting next year, the “authorized owner” of a vehicle will be allowed to alter the car’s software to “diagnose, [or] repair,” problems or for “good-faith security research” purposes.

For those who haven’t had a chance to see our documentary “PUMP”available on Netflix — let me quickly explain why this ruling should matter to Americans who are fighting for fuel choice or care about the quality of the air we breathe.

Unlike the cars of yesteryear, most vehicles on the road today have engine control units (ECUs), which are essentially little computers that ensure your car is running optimally. While for the most part this has done wonders for vehicle efficiency, there have been some negative side effects.

Until this ruling, the data these ECUs provided was inaccessible (legally) to the average American. This has stymied innovation by discouraging America’s best and brightest from looking at the software running their cars and trucks, and putting forward software suggestions that could improve vehicle efficiency and emission levels. What’s more, it also dissuaded those same minds from tinkering with the software to potentially allow for alternative fuels like ethanol and methanol to run in vehicles.

While it’s important to note that any software changes must keep vehicles in line with important environmental standards put in place by regulatory bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency, removing this legal barrier could spur innovation in both efficiency and fuel choices. As we’ve seen time and time again, there is no limit to what ingenious American minds can accomplish.

Another potentially positive aspect of this ruling is that it will make tricks like the one Volkswagen pulled — that put the health and well-being of countless Americans at risk — much harder to get away with. The Volkswagen air pollution scandal might have been detected years ago if innovative American minds had been allowed to examine the deleterious code in those millions of vehicles.

So while this won’t alter our vehicle landscape overnight — tinkering will still be legally questionable for another year — this ruling finally opens the door to Americans who want to improve the way we get from Point A to Point B. I can’t wait to see what we discover.

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