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The revelation that Volkswagen rigged software to cheat on emissions tests got us wondering what else the software in cars can do that we might not know about. The answer for the time being will remain a mystery. That's because of a little-known U.S. law. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, that law prevents car owners and researchers from accessing the software inside vehicles.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: There are as many as 100 million lines of computer code in some new cars. They help control the steering, cruise control, airbags, entertainment and antiskid systems. The technology is amazing. But Zeynep Tufekci at the University of North Carolina points out there is a cost.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI: The computers in our cars help us break better when it's raining. But we have to realize it doesn't come without issues. It means that you have an intelligent object that is serving its corporate owner at all times because we don't have access - independent access to the code.
NAYLOR: Now, most of us are blissfully unaware of what goes on under the hood of our cars, but there are some folks, be they tinkerers, geeks or, perhaps most importantly, safety researchers, who would like to access the software.
But right now, they can't legally. It's because of something called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Congress passed it back in 1998 in part to protect DVDs from being pirated. But courts have also interpreted the law to keep people from accessing the computer code in our cars, homes, even tractors. Kit Walsh is a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation which thinks this is wrong.
KIT WALSH: Think of crash test dummies. Those safety tests are relied on by a majority of Americans in deciding what vehicles to trust and to rely upon. And the same kind of analysis should be possible with computers given the crucial role that they play in controlling safety critical systems as well as the emissions systems.
NAYLOR: Walsh said if independent researchers has access to the code for VWs, for instance, they might have detected the cheating software much sooner and revealed that the clean diesel the company touted in a recent TV ad...
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The Passat TDI Clean Diesel, with up to 814 highway miles per tank
NAYLOR: ...Wasn't so clean. An exemption to the law that would allow researchers and owners to access car software has been fought by the auto industry. And Kit Walsh says the industry had an unexpected ally.
WALSH: We were surprised to see that the EPA wrote in against the exemption, particularly given that the investigation against Volkswagen must have been underway at that point.
NAYLOR: In a letter to the federal government's Copyright Office last July, the EPA argued allowing owners to access the software could result in tampering in a way that could increase emissions. Ironically, that's, of course, what VW itself did. The EPA didn't respond to a request for a comment. Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut says researchers should be able to get into the software.
RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: There should be access to the source code - that is, to the software - so that consumers and researchers are able to protect the public against this kind of deceptive action.
NAYLOR: The Copyright Office could act as soon as next month on such an exemption for researchers and others. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.
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