At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow points the finger of blame at VW’s DRM in their automobile software suite:
The EPA has accused Volkswagen of rigging its software to cheat the agency’s diesel emissions standards so that its cars could be on the road while spewing 40 times the legal limit for diesel emissions.
Volkswagen, like most auto manufacturers, uses digital rights management in its informatic systems. Under section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it is a felony to tamper with that DRM, punishable by five years in prison and a $500,000 fine for a first offense. The company uses this legal regime to limit which mechanics can service its cars, ensuring that only “official” mechanics, who are bound by nondisclosure agreements — and covenants to only buy their parts from VW and not an aftermarket competitor — can effectively service their cars.
This year, the US Copyright Office held its triennial hearings into possible exceptions to this rule, and one petition asked it to grant an exemption for jailbreaking cars. The car manufacturers intervened to oppose this, but so did the EPA, fearing that drivers would modify their firmware in ways that increased emissions.
But by banning independent scrutiny of cars, the EPA and the Copyright Office have made possible for terrible, criminal frauds like this one to go undetected for long periods, turning cars into long-lived reservoirs of dirty secrets that can’t be reported without risking criminal sanction.
Jazz Shaw has more:
This isn’t a case of any sort of trick carburetor or jury rigged catalytic converter. The vehicle’s onboard computer could sense when it was hooked up to a diagnostics machine for an emissions test and would conveniently turn on all of its emission control features. (It’s being referred to as a “defeat device.”) Then, when the test was completed and it was unhooked from the computer it would simply shut them off again, boosting performance but also increasing emissions. You almost have to admire the sheer audacity assuming this is true. And given the initial responses from the company they don’t seem to be claiming that they didn’t do it.
So far Volkswagen seems to be taking the line of assuring everyone that they will work to recall the cars and “fix” them to eliminate this problem. It likely won’t bankrupt a company that size, but it’s one heck of an expensive piece of humble pie to eat. If they contest the fines and go to court, however, I’m wondering if they will actually lose. This was some mischief designed to short sheet the system no doubt, but would they have an out if the case goes before a judge? I was looking over some of the state level requirements for the testing of vehicles and the boundaries to be followed are rather bare bones at best. Each vehicle in the qualifying categories which was manufactured after 1996 has to be equipped with an On-Board Diagnostics Generation II (OBDII) system. The emissions portion of this is heavily tied into your annoying “check engine” light.
The way most of the regulations are written seems to indicate that the vehicle must have a functional system of this type which is accurately monitoring system performance and meets the maximum emissions requirements at the time of testing. Obviously the VW vehicles in question were doing just that. But cars today have all sorts of bells and whistles which drivers can use to customize their driving experience. They can switch from “performance” mode to “economy” mode with the push of a button. Things like that obviously affect the vehicle’s emissions. Other such options are available. And when you think about it, the “disable device” was really just putting the car into a different mode of operation which includes heavy emissions control. When it was disconnected and ready to head back out on the road it was switching back to a different mode with a bit more performance. None of that changes the fact that the emissions were within the required limits at the time of testing.