It's Not Just VW: A Robust Market For Reprogramming Vehicles : All Tech Considered An entire marketplace exists on the Internet for tuners, devices that help drivers crank up the power on vehicles and then hide the evidence. We visit a local diesel shop to see how it works.
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It's Not Just VW: A Robust Market For Reprogramming Vehicles

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It's Not Just VW: A Robust Market For Reprogramming Vehicles

It's Not Just VW: A Robust Market For Reprogramming Vehicles

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's something you might not have heard in all the coverage of the Volkswagen scandal - there are a bunch of products you can buy on the Internet that basically do the same thing VW did. That is, you can crank up power on a vehicle and cheat on emissions tests. Here's NPR's Aarti Shahani.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Dieselgate by VW did not happen in a vacuum. There's an entire market - it's called the performance-tuning market - that helps car owners to game the system. Local mechanics know about it - like these guys.

ERIK LIND: Left Coast Diesel in Concord, Calif.

SHAHANI: Erik Lind owns this shop, which is known as the diesel shop in the Bay Area.

LIND: That's all we do here, yeah - diesel pickup trucks.

SHAHANI: There are about a dozen Fords, Dodges and Chevys in the garage. And on any given day, about half of them come in with something called a tuner installed. Shop manager Robert Myers points to a truck that has one.

Whose truck is this?

ROBERT MYERS: A customer. I don't - I don't divulge that, but...

SHAHANI: So we're not going to name names, but basically, the customer, who's here on other business, installed a kind of handheld computer. Just plug it into the pickup into a port called the OBD-II port, and then he or she could change settings.

MYERS: So he'd be able to get more horsepower, be able to get better towing, be able to get better fuel economy.

SHAHANI: The point is to reprogram the specs so the pickup has more torque to haul heavy things or can jump sand dunes or just go longer on less fuel. One downside is that could mean more - maybe way more - NOx emissions - the kind VW dumped into the air. In terms of this particular tuner...

MYERS: ...I don't think this has a federal omissions sticker, you know? I don't think it's CARB EO legal.

SHAHANI: CARB EO legal means it's been approved by the California Air Resources Board because it doesn't jack up emissions. Very few tuners are approved in this state, which is on the strict end, but most states don't have an oversight system. And owner Erik Lind says it's super-easy to find a hundred ways to make your vehicle powerful and dirty just by hacking the software. We got to his office, and he logs into his computer.

LIND: Let's be an average consumer for a second.

SHAHANI: Meaning we're going to Amazon?

LIND: We're going to go to Amazon because that's where I buy everything.

SHAHANI: He types in diesel tuner, and, boom, we get products by companies called Edge, Bully Dog, H&S. We click on a popular one by SCT that has 124 customer reviews, 4 out of 5 stars.

LIND: Three-hundred-and-fifty-nine bucks, works on all '06 to '14 cars and trucks and will even store custom tunes if you want to have somebody make you a custom tune.

SHAHANI: Custom tunes as opposed to generic tunes. Think of it this way - a software tuner is kind of like a car stereo. Say it has a default, you set the station you want - public radio, country, hip-hop, house, metal - and you just hit the button to flip stations or horsepower. With some tuners, even while you're driving. So say...

LIND: ...There's a Corvette next to you, and you want to go ahead and race him from a stoplight. You can hit level five and go crazy.

SHAHANI: When it's time to go in for a smog test, you just hit one to go back to the default. It's not as sophisticated as the VW hack, which automatically sensed when the car was being inspected, but Lind says it still gets the job done.

LIND: When you're done, just go back out in the parking lot and plug it in and give yourself all your power and mileage back.

SHAHANI: The aftermarket industry is not hidden. It's easy to find. But it's not clear if it's legal.

BILL RAND: One of the things that government is going to need to address is, how do we make sure that those modifications or that those changes are still something that is legal to do?

SHAHANI: Bill Rand is a computer scientist and business professor at the University of Maryland. And he says, whether software tuners are legal turns on two areas of law - environmental law and copyright law. Automakers have taken a hard stance that anything modifying their software violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

RAND: And that would include things that actually made the car more efficient.

SHAHANI: NPR reached out to more than a dozen tuner manufacturers to ask if their products track or control emissions levels. Only one responded - Tunit, based in the United Kingdom. And they say one University study found their product reduced emissions. It can be hard to prove if a tuner violates clean air laws. When someone rips out the filter from the exhaust, that's easy to spot - clear violation. But Rand says inspectors don't see when you reprogram the computer code.

RAND: So that you can't tell any difference between the way it's operating in the testing situation and what it would supposedly do in the real world.

SHAHANI: Rand says, as lawmakers consider the fate of Volkswagen, they may want to look at the aftermarket, too. Aarti Shahani, NPR News.

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