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Government Transportation

"Right To Repair" Bill Advances In Massachusetts 478

Wannabe Code Monkey sends along an article from the Patriot Ledger about an effort in Massachusetts to pass a "Right to Repair" bill. "Since the advent of congressionally mandated computers in vehicles more than 15 years ago (for emissions), cars have evolved into complex machines that are no longer just mechanical. Computers now monitor and control most systems in the car from brakes to tire pressure and all the electronics and engine fluids... [and] car manufacturers continue to hold back on some of the information that your mechanic needs in order to properly repair your car and reset your codes and warning lights... Massachusetts is now poised to solve this problem and car-driving consumers should pay attention this fall when the Massachusetts Legislature takes up landmark legislation that would force manufacturers to respect the right of consumers to access their own repair information. The legislation, known as Right to Repair, is seen by car manufacturers as a threat to the lucrative service business in their dealerships and they are massing their lobbyists on Beacon Hill in an effort to defeat it."
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"Right To Repair" Bill Advances In Massachusetts

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  • by thesandbender ( 911391 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @07:27PM (#29433557)
    There already is a government mandated standard for getting access to engine information. It's called OBD [] and you read codes off with a $100 reader. Your local AutoZone, etc. will usually even let you borrow a reader if you need to.

    OBD defines a set of specific codes for specific errors or measurements. It also allows manufacturers to define their own codes and measurements. I don't know of single vehicle whose manufacturer specific codes are not publicly available. Okay, you may have to pull out a book or look it up online (e.g. here is the list of codes for may BMW E46 3-series []) but it's out there and it's an amazing thing. The newer cars will even give you details like your exact fuel/air mixture ... in real-time. 9 times out of 10 the code pulled off the reader will tell me exactly what's wrong my car.

    It amazes me how many hobbyist and even professional mechanics complain about this. The tools are there, and cheap, just learn how to use them.
  • Re:That's no right (Score:5, Informative)

    by mikael ( 484 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @07:32PM (#29433611)

    In the article, it mentions that the "Right to Repair" relates to your right to choose who repairs your car (yourself, your local garage vs. the official car company dealer).

    Because cars have so many control units (eg. the Engine Control Unit []), specialized (and expensive) dealers are given advanced scanners which have full access to all the computer systems, and have the ability to clear any internal firmware fault bits which make fault lights remain on even after the car has been repaired. Other non-dealer garages don't have access to this information. They may be able to repair a broken headlight, but the computer system won't turn the fault light off, and might even refuse to allow the ignition to start.

    Some car companies were using DRM legislation to prevent owners from altering/checking/viewing the state of the system controller.

  • by brkello ( 642429 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @07:35PM (#29433649)
    You mean like this? []
  • Re:Yes! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @07:36PM (#29433657)

    This is very important, because if Ford* needs to release the information needed to repair the Focus* to the state of Massachusetts, they will basically make it available everywhere in the world where Ford sells this car. Similar to other US state laws regarding pollution or safe materials, this will affect us worldwide

    Or they'll add a state-specific encryption key needed to unlock the computer for repair work. And they'll only release the key for vehicles sold in Massachusetts.

    That won't work. Currently, any mechanic can read the codes (there is an open standard for the chip that outputs the codes), the problem is that they don't publish what the codes mean (outside of the basic codes that are defined in the standard).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @07:36PM (#29433663)

    Onboard Diagnostics... its a port & standard to the control electronics on the car; the OBD2 port is where the various programming tools are plugged in to see what's going on in the engine. OBD2 devices are the sorts of things that let you hook up a wifi transmitter to the port and watch your tachometer on your iPhone.

    The "gotcha" is that each vehicle (and sometimes, each engineering release) has to be programmed with manufacturer specific codes, most of what a consumer sees is just read-only data. If you reflash your engine controller, all of a sudden your car may not meet emissions requirements and the manufacturers are then likely to be held liable for the act committed by the purchaser (who will, of course, utter the famous phrase "I didn't change anything.") This would be a huge boon to trial attorneys everywhere and a major headache for the manufacturers.

    Unfortunately, no one has yet built a device that can assert "you are too stupid to operate this vehicle." It's unlikely it would sell well anyway.

  • Re:Yes! (Score:5, Informative)

    by tkw954 ( 709413 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @07:48PM (#29433801)
    You're right that any mechanic can read the legislated OBD-II codes. However, manufacturers are allowed to use proprietary codes or protocols for anything that isn't emissions related, and it wouldn't be too difficult to lock you out of everything else, if they really wanted to. Reading OBD-II trouble codes is only the tip of the iceberg of what you can do when you have full read and write access to the ECU.
  • by Attila Dimedici ( 1036002 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @07:52PM (#29433839)

    There already is a government mandated standard for getting access to engine information. It's called OBD [] and you read codes off with a $100 reader. Your local AutoZone, etc. will usually even let you borrow a reader if you need to. OBD defines a set of specific codes for specific errors or measurements. It also allows manufacturers to define their own codes and measurements. I don't know of single vehicle whose manufacturer specific codes are not publicly available. Okay, you may have to pull out a book or look it up online (e.g. here is the list of codes for may BMW E46 3-series []) but it's out there and it's an amazing thing. The newer cars will even give you details like your exact fuel/air mixture ... in real-time. 9 times out of 10 the code pulled off the reader will tell me exactly what's wrong my car. It amazes me how many hobbyist and even professional mechanics complain about this. The tools are there, and cheap, just learn how to use them.

    I went to that link, there were an awful lot of "UNKNOWN CODE" listed. I stopped skimming between 500 and 600 and found over 70 "UNKNOWN CODE" listings in that. Those "UNKNOWN CODE" listings are what this law is about. Those aren't unused codes, they are codes that BMW considers trade secrets and that are only published to mechanics working for BMW dealerships (other car manufacturers have similar codes).

  • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @07:54PM (#29433871)

    Do NOT buy a Volvo newer than '06 if you care about this sort of stuff. Any Volvo after about MY2006 requires something called "VIDA", which is the worst kind of crippled software. First, you need a several-thousand-dollar interface box. Second, the software requires a LIVE INTERNET CONNECTION. Cars after 2000 or so and before 2006 require "VADIS" and the same $$$$$ interface box.

    Get a load of this: every module in the car (and there are a dozen plus) requires firmware or "coding". That coding is VIN specific, and the software is ENCRYPTED TO YOUR SPECIFIC CAR by Volvo before it is transmitted to you (the reason a live connection is required.) Further, the download requires a payment to Volvo! Just the ability to use VIDA is subscription based, and you pay separately for diagnostic abilities, wiring charts, and technical information. As in, you have to pay for each one if you want it- it's not a package.

    On the Audi/VW side, there is an awesome program called VAG-COM which allows you to view all sorts of parameters, adjust values, read diagnostic codes, etc...almost EVERYTHING that can possibly be accessed or tweaked. Alarm motion sensor too sensitive? Tweak it. Want to be able to roll up your windows from the keyfob? Done. Want to enable one-touch-up on a window? Done. Want to install euro-code taillights with yellow turn signals? Done. Want to let your fog lights stay on with your highbeams, or run with the headlights off? Done and done. Costs a few hundred dollars, and that includes the adapter. You can buy the factory repair manual, and once you have, it's yours, and you can diagnose and repair many things yourself, replace components, etc.

    On the Volvo side...guess what? VIDA required. "What about ODB2?" you say? Well, ODB2 only encompasses the most basic live engine information and diagnostic codes. If you want anything actually useful, you need to know the custom ODB2 data fields (very similar to how SNMP is an open standard, but nearly worthless without vendor OIDs.)

    Truly, madly blows. There are a bunch of parameters that can be changed on my car, but they can only be done by the dealer, and they're guaranteed to charge for it. Nevermind that the whole car is networked with CAN-BUS and many of the mid-2000's models have huge problems with module failures, network bus problems, etc. Oh, and the best part: if a software update fucks up something, they can't roll it back. Volvo didn't design the systems to allow for going back a firmware revision. You can only install NEWER versions!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @08:02PM (#29433955)

    Despite all the corruption, traffic, and other crap we have to deal with, Massachusetts has some of the best consumer and employee protection laws in the country. They've saved me and my customers thousands of dollars that would have otherwise been lost to my former employer (a retail electronics chain with the initials R.S.).


    • Employers must pay employees for accumulated vacation time upon termination of any kind.
    • Merchants must honor the lowest price marked on the product, regardless of the expiration date or the price in "the computer"
    • All used cars must pass the state safety and emissions inspection within 30 days of being sold, if the car fails to pass this inspection the seller must either take the car back and refund the buyer, or pay for the work needed to bring the car up to code.
    • Gift certificates must be valid for at least seven years, and are valid indefinitely of the expiration date isn't specified on the card or the receipt. Also, once 10% or less of the value is remaining, the merchant must offer the option to refund the rest in cash

    Also Marijuana is decriminalized in amounts up to one ounce for personal possession, gay marriage is legal, and your car is considered part of your home and is given the same 4th amendment protections. Sometimes it's nice being a Masshole (when I'm not stuck in traffic).

  • Re:Unexpected (Score:5, Informative)

    by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @08:21PM (#29434107) Homepage Journal

    As someone who has dealt with OBD-II a bit, allow me to shed some light on the subject. The OBD-II standards specify a series of families of error codes. Codes within a certain range are chassis codes, another range for powertrain codes, another range for emissions control crap, etc. The precise details of what non-powertrain codes mean, however, are specific to each vehicle. For example, in most Chevy cars, C1780 means "Loss of Steering Position Signal". In Ford vehicles, it means "Temperature select failure". And IIRC, there are even some variations between specific models, though I don't have time to hunt for specific examples.

    And even within the powertrain codes, the root cause can be vehicle-specific. For example, P0171 and P0174 are both codes for engine banks running lean on a '99 Windstar. They usually mean a vacuum leak caused by oil breakdown of port seals coupled with carbon deposits in the intake due to a flaw in the front valve cover. That's something the code number can't tell you.

    Finally, some cars have multiple ECUs at multiple addresses. The chassis and brake codes might be in a different ECU, and AFAIK, that info is completely undocumented.

    In short, generic scan tools generally give you a reasonable view of the powertrain codes and nothing more. Although it's better than nothing, it isn't a complete picture.

  • by Iguanadon ( 1173453 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @08:24PM (#29434147)

    There's more than just reading error codes though. I wanted to install an aux in for my cars stereo. I checked online and I can easily buy the official Saab kit online for ~$40, the install is also fairly trivial, but the dealer wanted $100 to just hook up their computer and enable it on my stereo. Similar thing if I do any other modifications to the car, everything is run through a central computer which only official Saab dealers (or mechanics who want to shell out $20,000+ a year) can access.

  • by couchslug ( 175151 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @08:42PM (#29434327)

    "Worse when you payed out the ass for 'certified mechanics' to begin with."

    Passing a cert test for cars isn't terribly difficult, but then neither is passing the AMT test
    to perform work on aircraft. :P
                                                                      Tests don't make a mechanic.

  • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @08:46PM (#29434363) Homepage Journal

    Without the experience to understand what those codes imply I am still in the dark as to what the problem actually is.

    That has nothing to do with this.

    OBD-II means that you can talk to the Powertrain Control Module, or PCM. What you can talk to it about is what this is all about. Your code reader allows you to pull trouble codes, which will allow an experienced mechanic who has driven your car to make some educated guesses. A more advanced generic scan tool is usually able to additionally read the state of all of the vehicle's sensors, and view snapshot data that tells you what happened the last time the most serious code stored in memory occurred. The manufacturer's scan tool, which is usually based on one of about four [occasionally updated] models from the same people who will sell you generic or even vehicle-customized scan tools at outrageous prices, goes considerably further than this; however, there is much more than the tool itself involved.

    First, it's important to note that the scan tool is not the only computer involved in tuning the computers of modern vehicles. Most vehicles have, if not field-reprogrammable code, then at least field-reprogrammable maps which dictate fuel delivery under specific vehicle conditions. This data is usually delivered to the PCM via the scan tool, but it is usually delivered to the tool from a PC at the dealership. If you want to reprogram the factory computer for high-altitude operation (yes, this is a real scenario, yes, I think the cars should be able to self-adjust by now, so they can keep up with my ancient mechanical turbo-diesel) you're going to need access to this stuff. In addition, on the rare chance you actually get any of those mystery codes, the factory scan tool will know what they are. In most cases they're probably going to be some internal error that has to do with why some component failed, like perhaps the PCM. In some cases, they might be vitally important to understanding what the problem is. Who knows? They're secret!

    Eventually, some of this information sneaks out. Someone gets their hands on the tool and some OBD-II interfaces of some sort; maybe CAN, maybe the ISO or JEDEC standard, and they sniff the traffic and see what it looks like. You can plug in a module and reprogram a lot of diesels, for example, to be more efficient or more powerful. "Back in the day" when ECUs were simple and had an 8-bit microcontroller you had a lot of chip-replacement upgrades, but now you need to reprogram or replace the PCM because pieces of the car talk back and forth to one another in many cases, especially when there is traction control, an automatic transmission, and coil-on-plug (or often even waste spark) ignition.

  • Re:Yes! (Score:3, Informative)

    by Totenglocke ( 1291680 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @08:50PM (#29434395)

    The FTC is holding hearings on whether or not to continue to allow DRM and EULA's.

    At that site you can write a submission to the FTC about why DRM / EULA's are bad.

    I'm pretty excited!

  • by russotto ( 537200 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @08:52PM (#29434415) Journal

    My clutch went out on the highway and the mechanic told me that it was either the master cylinder or the slave cylinder, but they didn't have the diagnostic tools to verify which and they were getting the runaround from the manufacturer.

    The mechanic is an idiot. There's no computer codes or special tools to determine if the problem is the master cylinder or the slave cylinder. It's literally a mechanical system; clutch linkage to the piston on the master cylinder, piston pushes fluid through the line to the slave cylinder, which has a piston which pushes the release fork. If the system was low on fluid when you brought it in (and it must have been, or filling and bleeding it without fixing the problem wouldn't have gotten it working temporarily), then the fluid leaked somewhere. Find the leak (using Mk I eyeball and other primitive tools) and you've figured out which one is the problem.

  • Re:Yes! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Totenglocke ( 1291680 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @08:55PM (#29434451)

    The FTC is holding hearings on whether or not to continue to allow DRM and EULA's.

    At that site you can write a submission to the FTC about why DRM / EULA's are bad.

    I'm pretty excited to see how this turns out!

  • Re:Yes! (Score:4, Informative)

    by neowolf ( 173735 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @09:12PM (#29434621)
    I believe that dealer was definitely trying to screw you. The smart key (or whatever Honda's name for it) electronics in the car are already built to accept new keys, and the procedure for programming them is fairly straight-forward. ANY modern and qualified locksmith can hook you up with a replacement key. Hell- I got one for my last Honda from Ace Hardware- they have the "smart" keys and duplicating equipment for it, although they can't help you actually program the RFID to the car. That information is readily available online though.
    I don't remember the exact procedure anymore, but it was something along the lines of- "With an already-programmed key- lock and then unlock the driver's door. Then lock and unlock it with the new key. Then insert the already-programmed key in the ignition and turn it to Run, then Off. Then do the same with the new key three times within one minute." All these steps tell the car's immobilizer and ignition RFID system that you have a new key and want to use it. There are similar procedures for all such systems.
    I suppose it might be a bit difficult if you didn't have another working key, but you could probably fudge it by using the new key and just holding the broken one next to it so the car "recognizes" that you have a legitimate key.
    As far as the topic of providing ALL of the error code information, instead of reserving key information to drive up dealer revenue- I definitely agree, although it is possible it would result in overall car prices going up. I can't help but think the additional revenue of these repairs helps to keep prices down to some extent, and I have little doubt that repair revenue is what keeps many dealers in business. I do remember when I owned a Volkswagen that it was almost impossible to get any relevant error codes out of it using standard ODBII equipment. My "regular" mechanic couldn't do a whole lot with it, and I had to take it to the dealer or an expensive "specialist" to diagnose many of the errors (and there were a LOT of them). To their credit- I've never had a problem with my Hondas that wasn't easily diagnosed with an ODBII meter from Pep Boys. I found a quote online once along the lines of: "A Volkswagen doesn't exist to give its driver pleasure- it exists to provide a constant revenue stream to the dealer." Not to just pick on them, I actually loved that car and you could probably plug any car manufacturer into that sentence.
  • Re:That's no right (Score:3, Informative)

    by NJRoadfan ( 1254248 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @09:25PM (#29434723)

    I wonder if a lot of this silliness is only found on expensive luxury models like BMWs and Cadillacs. I'll bet your run-of-the-mill Kia or Hyundai doesn't have anything like this, even now.

    Hyundai has their own dealer tool. If you happen to bleed your brakes yourself and somehow manage to get air in the ABS pump, using that tool is the only way to cycle the pump to get the air bubbles out. Early ABS equipped cars usually had a jumper of some sort on the ABS controller to cycle the ABS pump on its own, but that simply isn't the case anymore.

  • Re:Yes! (Score:3, Informative)

    by HornWumpus ( 783565 ) on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @09:29PM (#29434763)

    That's a Bullshit response.

    All the OEMs have secret OBD codes that mean specific things are wrong with the vehicle, many have been reverse engineered.

    These codes are used by the stealership monkeys to repair via parts swap. 99.999% of the time involving no calls to the OEM.

    Independent shops already use aftermarket scanners which often decode the secrets about the time the vehicles fall out of warranty, sometimes not.

    But the good scanners, with the big reverse engineering efforts behind them, are expensive and need frequent expensive updates. This serves as a barrier to entry to shops and basically a block to shade tree mechanics..

    The dealers don't want to be left with only the 'call the OEM' cases.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @09:42PM (#29434877)

    You really have absolutely no clue at all about what you are talking. ... How did you calculate your $15 worth of parts? ... Yes different cars have different computers. In fact a single car will have many different computers inside it. Different ECU's for different purposes are manufactured differently. Whether it is for safety (air bag, ABS brakes) or emission (ECM) or infotainment. It make no sense whatsoever to normalize the ECU's in a car. Each specific computer pretty much does only its job and nothing else. It would really be incredibly stupid to have a powerful CPU processing lift gate signals or a passenger presence system. The electrical configuration for cars has gotten so complex that managing the data and specifications have become a nightmare. And this is considering that most of the hardware is pretty much in the stone age compared to your "tech manufactures" (absolutely idiotic comparison by the way). Some manufacturers already provide a great deal of information to the aftermarket.

    Whoever wrote the article really does not have any idea what goes behind the scenes.

    Its too bad you were asked $700 for your part, but that has practically nothing to do with the engineering that goes into developing vehicle ECU's and related software.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday September 15, 2009 @10:03PM (#29435005)

    No not like that.

    Those documents will give you a version of the document spec which office can read. That is it.

    It is purely so you can write programs that export/output files which office can read in.
    It has nothing to do with reading current office formats that office writes out, which are not anywhere to be found.

  • by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @12:17AM (#29436035)

    I second the motion that VAG-COM is awesome. However it shouldn't be used to contrast VW/Audi with Volvo, since (to my knowledge) VAG-COM was reverse engineered entirely independently of VW after frustration with VW's use of proprietary codes.

    Actually, it should - because VW/Audi's code is private/proprietary, but with a few exceptions (namely, encryption/encoding used to match the dashboard cluster to the ECU and the immobilizer, for anti-theft reasons) nothing is encrypted.

    VW/Audi don't ship electronic modules and parts without software/programming. You may need to flip some bits, but VAG-COM can do it. And you can move parts between cars. And the software in a effing headlight (!!) isn't specifically and purposefully encrypted for one specific car. For Volvos, IT IS. And because of all that encryption, there will never be a "VLV-COM".

    It's a fundamental design and business policy difference, and one whose only purpose is to bone the customer and lock them into servicing their car at mechanics who do enough volume to be able to afford the outrageous VIDA fees. And in ten years when they stop making modules for a particular Volvo, you won't be able to go to the junkyard and yank a module.

  • Re:Yes! (Score:5, Informative)

    by smellsofbikes ( 890263 ) on Wednesday September 16, 2009 @12:55AM (#29436227) Journal
    There were already computers in cars. My 1981 Chevy Chevette had a Motorola 6800 in it. It controlled the ignition timing and did some shenanigans with the fuel based on air flow. I had zero access to its internals. Likewise, my 1987 Nissan Sentra had a microprocessor in it, that ran the ignition and some of the fuel emissions equipment. Again, zero access to its internals. In fact, if I pulled the carpet out from under the seat, I could get access to the controller's case and by pushing on a button there, I could see an LED blinking on and off in long repeated strings of quick on and longer on times. Zero documentation in any of the manuals I could get to.

    What Congress mandated was that manufacturers use a standard communication protocol, document it, and release it publically (sorta -- it's not really fully public), to prevent them doing exactly what the previous poster said they'd do, and they were in fact doing: providing diagnostic tools that only their mechanics could use.

I'm always looking for a new idea that will be more productive than its cost. -- David Rockefeller