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VW Diesel Crisis Illustrates Downside of Proprietary Vehicle Software

13_VW_Beetle_TDI_ES_1.jpg Volkswagen TDI diesel engine; | Cars.com photo by Evan Sears

The Volkswagen diesel crisis is an ongoing reminder of the dilemma that proprietary auto software and hardware is presenting for automakers and consumers. In September, VW disclosed that alleged “defeat devices” were installed in 2009-15 VW and Audi diesel cars. How was VW able to get away with this for so long? Because the automaker’s onboard software is protected against outside inspection.

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Outright fraud is a small part of the liability. The systems that protect the personal data on your smartphone and laptop from theft are based on open standards that the crypto community can observe, debate, test, break, debug … and, most importantly, fix. Slate reports that General Motors lawyers defended the practice in a U.S. Copyright Office hearing by insisting a car’s software is owned by the automaker and your car payment doesn’t entitle you or your mechanic to access to its software.

A car has practically as much onboard code as the space shuttle. When this important stuff is kept private, maintaining its integrity becomes the sole responsibility of the maker’s tiny team of coders. Their swords and shields can only be deployed at the company’s discretion, which might not even acknowledge that a defect represents a big enough safety and stability hazard to be worth the time and money for the fix.

If only the problem were limited to just code. John Deere and other automakers are developing, and asserting copyright on proprietary connectors, thus controlling access to the repair chain.

It’s a bad situation that could get far, far worse. Today, you throw away a perfectly good phone after two or three years because a component goes bad or its operating system is obsolete, because the manufacturer refuses to provide parts or code updates. As the driver of an old but beloved car that owes its latest 50,000 miles to the abilities of mechanics who understand the engine’s technology and can build parts that no longer exist, I worry the day is coming when great cars get scrapped because an automaker decided it was time to force me to buy a new one.

Cars.com contributor Andy Ihnatko is a nationally known tech writer.

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