Automakers argue that it’s unlawful for independent researchers to look at the code that controls vehicles without the manufacturer’s permission. We’ve explained before how this allows manufacturers to prevent competition in the markets for add-on technologies and repair tools. It also makes it harder for watchdogs to find safety or security issues, such as faulty code that can lead to unintended acceleration or vulnerabilities that let an attacker take over your car.
The legal uncertainly created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act also makes it easier for manufacturers to conceal intentional wrongdoing. We’ve asked the Librarian of Congress to grant an exemption to the DMCA to make it crystal clear that independent research on vehicle software doesn’t violate copyright law. In opposing this request, manufacturers asserted that individuals would violate emissions laws if they had access to the code. But we’ve now learned that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency [PDF], Volkswagen had already programmed an entire fleet of vehicles to conceal how much pollution they generated, resulting in a real, quantifiable impact on the environment and human health.