Volkswagen’s clean brand was sullied last week when it was revealed that the carmaker had rigged the software in 11 million of its cars to cheat on emissions tests. In the fallout, VW CEO, Martin Winterkorn, resigned and critics have called for the company to allow access to its source code. But a U.S. law currently allows Das Auto to keep its software secrets to itself.
Per NPR’s coverage, there are as many as 100 million lines of computer code in some new cars, which control high-level functions like steering, cruise control, air bags, anti-skid systems and entertainment. According to University of North Carolina assistant professor Zeynep Tufekci, this technology comes at a price because “you have an intelligent object that is serving its corporate owner at all times because we don’t have … independent access to the code.”
Some with a keen interest in this knowledge and others like researchers, for whom this information is essential for ensuring standards are met, would welcome access to carmarkers’ software. But they won’t get it — for now.
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed in 1998 in part as a DVD anti-piracy effort. Per NPR, courts have also interpreted the law to prevent access to the computer code in cars, homes and tractors.
Per NPR, according to Kit Walsh, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, denying code access is wrong and such access could have detected the cheating software much sooner. Per USA Today, this cheating allowed VW to hide that its “vehicles are emitting harmful pollutants at rates of up to 40 times U.S. standards.”
Surprisingly, in a July 2015 letter to the U.S. Copyright Office, it was the EPA who argued against car owners’ access to software because it “could result in tampering in a way that could increase emissions.” NPR cleverly notes, just as VW itself did.
A decision by the Copyright Office could move as soon as October 2015 on a possible exemption for researchers and others.
Just in time is LLM, Inc.’s current white paper: “Source Code: Receiving, Reviewing and Producing.” It is available for free download and provides counsel with a better understanding of the complexities of source code production and more.