The Seattle Post-Intelligencer ran an article today about automobile manufacturers who are frustrating independent auto mechanics by locking down their technologies with secret access codes:
Gary Putman is an accomplished mechanic with bills to pay and a business to grow.
Yet more and more these days, he's forced to wave customers away from his popular shop in West Seattle. He literally can't crack the computer code he needs to diagnose and fix an assortment of maladies ranging from climate systems to brakes to electrical glitches that commonly strike late-model cars.
"If you don't have the code, you lose the job. They have to go to the dealers. It's an illegal monopoly, in my opinion. It happens enough that it's a real problem," said Putman, who owns Westside Import Repair.
Putman isn't alone. Across the nation, professional mechanics and weekend tinkerers alike are confronting a new reality in today's highly computerized cars -- to fix the car, you first have to be able talk to the computer. And that's where the trouble starts. More often than not, the code is in a language understood only by auto manufacturers.
Even locksmiths are annoyed because these days the keys to some cars contain computer chips, and to replace them, a locksmith needs the correct code.
The article goes on to talk about a recent effort in Congress to pay a bill that forces auto manufacturers to release this information publicly. What the article doesn't discuss, however, is the underlying principle being threatened here: interoperability. Numerous professionals perform services on the devices we purchase. For the cars here, they are mechanics and locksmiths, but it could be service/repair folks for items like copy machines, phone lines, computers, dishwashers, etc. The legacy of independent service providers, both big and small, is quite long and historic in this country.
The article supports this, pointing to what the automakers appear to fear the most -- competition for interoperable parts:
Automakers are fighting the legislation; they believe the real goal is to obtain proprietary "calibration codes" that are the blueprints for how parts are made. With that information, Territo said, independent mechanics and parts manufacturers could duplicate major components such as fuel injectors that automakers have spent millions of dollars developing.
While the "security through obscurity" approach described in the article seems anti-competitive on its own, I'm much more concerned with what may be the next step -- DMCA anti-circumvention lawsuits. Automakers could well declare that their "secret codes" are access controls on their systems software and that mechanics who figure out the codes are "circumventing" them. Sounds a bit silly, but not to far off from the theories in Skylink and Lexmark.