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Detroit vs. Monkey Wrench Joes
by Rick Smith and Stephen R. Jones

Issue: USA Today ran an article with disturbing implications, "High-tech cars pose mechanical dilemma", about the independent auto mechanics who are in a fight to prevent their eventual extinction. These independents are lobbying in Washington to require that Detroit auto manufacturers must share their diagnostic "codes", so independents will have a fair chance to diagnose and repair today's increasingly software tuned cars. Not surprisingly, the EPA is actually siding with the technicians, since an open "code book" would empower more hands to fix emissions problems.

Sure, Detroit wants to keep their diagnostic codes as an exclusive little secret, known only within to their service bays. But, the tactics start to sound downright conspiratorial when you read statements like: "The emissions repair codes are linked to anti-theft devices, which is causing the insurance industry to oppose the EPA proposal."

What's up with that? Either Detroit's programmers are stupid (to create this alleged link) or the insurance industry has some hidden agenda.

Why is this "stupid" for Detroit? If you designed a system to keep others out, wouldn't this be a natural extension? I am only surprised that the diagnostic system isn't linked to the onboard SAFETY systems -- this way the U.S. GOVERNMENT would help to keep these codes secret.

Using security as an issue has garnered support from other industries and many new cars have gone to great lengths to secure the vehicle. Gone are the days of going down to the hardware store to get a duplicate key made.

Security is good. But, come on, I just don't buy the link between diagnostic codes and security once your car is in the shop. Mechanics are already "trusted" in the security sense whether the keys are virtual or physical:

  • You hand over to them $20,000+ worth of your capital goods (cyber reality is no different)
  • You give them your keys (metal ones or "codes", either way they can be copied)
  • You trust them not to sabotage your car (they can pee in your radiator or reprogram your car to stall)

    In short, I don't see any added vulnerabilities introduced by opening up "soft" cars -- only new, artificial barriers to independent business people in competition with the "code holders" at megacorporations.

  • There may not be any additional consumer risk, but what is the downside risk for automakers? Few people buy cars based on who has access to their "diagnostic codes". The 1984 Cadillac was one of the first cars with a digital diagnostic display within the driver's compartment as part of the heater/air conditioning control. Engine diagnostics could be performed from this unit, while the car was running. I believe that some high school kids were the first to "hack" into this system within a year or so. Now, nearly all cars require specialized diagnostic tools, made by SnapOn and others, to display error codes.

    I also think that the insurance companies are being used as pawns in this scheme. They have been scared into thinking that more cars will be stolen if the codes get out, even if it isn't true.

    True. I guess you could argue that ultimately the free market should punish closed, proprietary cars by making them more expensive to maintain. In the short term, though, Detroit could easily crush local garage competition and dictate consumer's service choices.

    One would think so, but I think that this may never happen if enough independent garages are driven out of business in the meantime. And I don't mean just the small "repair" shops, but major muffler and brake shops as well. Even changing your oil could be affected.

    Worse, there's another unanticipated consequence of keeping the codebooks secret: It could easily collapse the value of future USED cars (and their collectibility). If the everyday collector or restorer can't keep them running, then these potential collector's items turn to clunkers really fast. This is one of the reasons that I have seen older Mercedes Benz vehicles with replaced engines. Many engines in Jaguar sedans (XJ6) of the early eighties were replaced with Chevy 350 engines. Jaguar had used GM TurboHydromatic transmissions since the late seventies, so it only required an engine swap. Unfortunately, I have a 1975 Jaguar XJ12L that has a BORG WARNER transmission, which is a real nightmare.

    A similar problem crops up with PC motherboards. These motherboards can only continue their useful life after a failure if their diagnostic codes are well documented. Without these codes, entire systems can become so much scrap metal, holding together a few, much less valuable chips for the parts bin. Many motherboards are tossed away as a result and added to the waste stream for future generations to deal with.

    Final Word
    It sounds as if we agree that this "code control" tactic would have a chilling effect on the vast industries of aftermarket service, customization and reselling. Whether it makes "business sense" or not, this is such a flagrant, "cartel-like" ploy to limit consumer choices that I'd hope consumer groups and the Feds would crack down on this "lock-in" ploy by Detroit.

    BTW: For some outstanding thinking on this topic, you should check out a book called (appropriately enough) "Code" by Lawrence Lessig. He argues that exactly these kinds of "business decisions" by private companies (which are embodied in code) will increasingly encroach on our public liberties (like going to the corner garage) and therefore deserve a degree of regulation.
    -- Stephen Jones

    Final Word
    I hope you are right. Unfortunately, I think many of our career politicians decide issues by considering only who has the most cash or clout and not thinking how their decisions will affect future generations.

    But digital technology seems to have a way of escaping close confinement, at least for awhile. Record companies wanted higher margins on their products and created CD technology, which they said would eventually drop back to former pricing. They were so happy making this added money that they didn't think about potential problems of their easy-to-copy format.

    What happened next? These artificially high prices (relative to cheaper production costs) caused a grass roots consumer revolt in the form of Napster and the whole MP3 revolution. Detroit should take heed of that and avoid the recording industry's desperate effort to crack down on security, instead of passing on the savings and creating greater sales.

    Bottom-line: I think Detroit will keep its codes secret for awhile, but to no avail. Independent garages will stay in business but will be forced to pass on the cost (to legally or illegally acquire or bypass the codes) to us, the consumers.
    -- Rick Smith

    Dated: September 14, 2002

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