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How the DMCA may have let carmakers cheat clean air standards

Lucas Mearian | Sept. 28, 2015
With transparency, automakers would be far less likely to evade safety and emission standards.

The EPA has also expressed concern that use of the DMCA and its copyright protection of "technological protection measures" could "slow or reverse gains made under the Clear Air Act [CAA of 1990]."

In a letter dated July 17, 2005, the EPA wrote the U.S. Copyright Office stating that computer programs in motor vehicles controlling engine operations have been critical to achieving emissions reductions.

A vehicle's electronic control module continuously monitors the vehicle engine and emission control system and dictates the engine's fueling and timing strategies for purposes of complying with the CAA.

"TPMs for electronic control modules make it difficult for anyone other than the vehicle manufacturer to obtain access to the software," the EPA's letter stated.

Ironically, the EPA also noted that copyright protections for vehicle software also keep it from enforcing laws to stop third-party vendors from tampering with code to "bypass, defeat, or render inoperative" software designed to enable vehicles to comply with CAA regulations.

Walsh said he was not surprised that Volkswagen's simple software was able to thwart  EPA tests, though it wouldn't likely be effective against independent researchers.

"It's one thing to write software that can fool laboratory conditions under a testing regime that the EPA publishes in advance. It's lot harder to create software that's going to fool independent researchers who are able to work with the code in the wild," Walsh said. "The simple fact of transparency would deter manufacturers from this kind of cheating."

"I'm really curious to see what independent researchers are able to turn up in other vehicles," he added. "In a security context, that's the place where we have the most proven track record. Independent researchers have found in almost every vehicle they've analyzed something the public needs to know about."


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