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Automakers just lost the battle to stop you from hacking your car

The vice grip on car software gets forcibly loosened

Matt Cardy/Getty Images

The Librarian of Congress has issued new exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) as part of a triennial review, and one of them grants people access to parts of the computer software running their cars. While you've always been allowed to tinker with your car's engine or change the oil and rotate the tires, now you'll be able to get under the digital hood.

The DMCA was passed in 1998 to protect things like copyrighted software, usually by prohibiting the copying or modification of it, or at least the bypassing of encryption that protects it. But every three years, groups can propose exceptions to these rules. For this year's review, the Electronic Frontier Foundation proposed an exemption that would allow people to access these computer programs "for the purposes of diagnosis, repair and modification of vehicles." The proposal was "fully supported" by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which believes the exemption is "necessary to allow consumers to continue to engage in the longstanding practice of working on their own vehicles."

Accessing your car's software will be as legal as changing the oil

This didn't sit well with a number of automotive groups, especially the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, the Association of Global Automakers, the Auto Alliance, GM, John Deere, or the Motor & Equipment Manufacturers Association. Each is listed in the Librarian of Congress' order as having opposed the exemption, for various reasons. They said it was "unnecessary" because "vehicle owners have alternative options, such as manufacturer-authorized repair shops and tools." They also claimed that unrestricted access to this software could present "serious public health, safety and environmental concerns" — an intended or unintended modification could disable the airbags or the anti-lock brakes, for instance. The Department of Transportation (DOT), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the California Air Resources Board (ARB) all also voiced concerns. The DOT and ARB "responded with varying degrees of concern," and the EPA opposed any exemptions whatsoever.

David Mao — the acting Librarian of Congress — granted the exemption with a number of restrictions based on these concerns, starting with a 12-month waiting period before the exemption will be officially granted. In addition, the software that controls "telematics or entertainment systems" is not exempt, so you won't be allowed to dive into the code that runs your car's infotainment setup. You'll also still be held accountable if your fooling around with the software violates laws or regulations, especially those from the DOT or the EPA.

Groups like the EPA fear that customers will use the exemption to do things like increase engine performance at the cost of higher vehicle emissions, but irony is that the lack of public access to vehicle software was (part of) what made it so easy for Volkswagen to conceal its recent emissions scandal in the first place.

The entire order can be found at the US Copyright Office's website, but here's the new exemption straight from the order:

Computer programs that are contained in and control the functioning of a motorized land vehicle such as a personal automobile, commercial motor vehicle or mechanized agricultural vehicle, except for computer programs primarily designed for the control of telematics or entertainment systems for such vehicle, when circumvention is a necessary step undertaken by the authorized owner of the vehicle to allow the diagnosis, repair or lawful modification of a vehicle function; and where such circumvention does not constitute a violation of applicable law, including without limitation regulations promulgated by the Department of Transportation or the Environmental Protection Agency; and provided, however, that such circumvention is initiated no earlier than 12 months after the effective date of this regulation.