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Common Tread

Will the government make working on your own vehicle illegal?

May 04, 2015

The one bipartisan action the government always succeeds at is pissing people off, and this morning they got me. I was on my way to my desk, fresh cup of coffee in hand, when ol’ Lem Lem waved me over to his corner of the office.

“Check this out,” Lemmy said, motioning to his computer screen. “Looks like the automotive industry is lobbying to make it illegal to work on your own vehicle.”

That couldn’t be right, could it?

The article was titled “Automakers to gearheads: Stop repairing cars” and was written by Pete Bigelow of The article as a whole is pretty damn interesting, but for the sake of brevity, here is what you need to know.

In 1998, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act was passed in an effort to protect intellectual property in an ever-changing digital age. In 1998, this had no bearing over cars or potentially motorcycles. Fast forward 17 years and cars, as well as motorcycles, incorporate more technology than the most advanced personal computers of my youth.

With technology ever changing, the DMCA is periodically reviewed. That's where the automakers got involved.

"Restricting access to automotive software benefits the public," said the Association of Global Automakers in comments submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office. Automakers want to make it illegal for anyone other than dealerships and authorized automotive facilities to modify the software in cars. The implications of this would be a huge blow to the automotive world, and eventually, the motorcycle community.

Modifying an O2 sensor to install an auto-tuning fuel system. RevZilla photo.

We are already seeing the effects of the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on motorcycles being imported to the United States with leaner fuel maps and all sorts of secondary air injection systems. Residents of California know better than anyone that the wind of change is blowing hard. Try to walk into your local dealer in the Golden State and have an aftermarket exhaust installed or a fuel system remapped.

Good luck.

The car manufacturers want to take it further and prevent all of us from touching the software in our vehicles' engine control units, and they're trying to use the copyright law to do it. At-home tuners have been “chipping” cars' ECUs for years in search of more power and better fuel efficiency, among other things. The automakers want to eliminate that and are appealing to the government regulators by claiming that such mods could make the vehicles fail to comply with emissions regulations or even make them unsafe.

The Power Commander V is only one of many fuel controllers available to consumers to retune their fuel systems. RevZilla photo.

What does this have to do with motorcycles? So much of what starts in the automotive world trickles down to the motorcycle community within a few years. Anyone out there with a Power Commander on your bike? A Bazzaz unit? Two Brothers Juice Box? How about you Harley folks? Based on the sales numbers we have seen, I am guessing more than a few of you are rocking a Vance & Hines FP3. How many of you are running an aftermarket exhaust system? Any of you remove the secondary air injection systems, bypass your servo motor, or remove the throttle plates off of your bikes? I am gonna go out on a limb here and say plenty of you have answered “Yes” to at least one of these questions. Lord knows I am guilty on multiple accounts.

Vance & Hines FP3 App allows users to check and clear trouble codes. RevZilla photo.

Auto manufacturers are looking to go beyond the few loose EPA regulations that currently make home modifications illegal. They want to go after both the consumer and the companies manufacturing the devices that allow consumers to read, clear, and modify their vehicles' ECUs. They are operating under the guise of concern for public safety, making claims that the public is too ignorant to work on their own cars correctly and that everyone should return to a sanctioned dealership to have work performed. Again, the thought of this going into effect makes me cringe on multiple fronts.

First of all, could you imagine the monopoly this would impose on consumers? Dealerships already charge a premium for even the simplest task. Can you imagine if they were the only pony in the race?

In this day and age, finding a trusted mechanic to work on our bikes is becoming more of a challenge. They are being replaced by underpaid “parts swappers” as dealers try to save money by cutting costs. Some of the best mechanics I know are the ones operating in the back alley garages in America, keeping the American Dream alive and well while covered in grease and drenched in gasoline fumes. Will this push more of them out of business? How badly will this hurt companies that make aftermarket tuning products?

And what about those of us who simply like to work on our own bikes? Tinkering with fuel maps and blocking off secondary air injection ports to try to gain better performance. Always seeking some way to improve our machines, we understand and accept the inherent dangers we face if we make a modification that affects the safety of our machine. Of course there are potential dangers with working on our own machines, but those are risks we are willing to take. Motorcycles are inherently dangerous and we accept that.

One of the current "death traps" I am building in my garage, boldly ignoring warnings from automakers. Photo by Lemmy.

Part of me can’t imagine this will pass, at least without significant pushback, but in this day and age, nothing would surprise me. Anyone else remember the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008, which banned the sale of youth motorcycles and ATVs because of lead content?

Manufacturers are trying to present themselves as the good guys in this scenario, looking out for the safety of the consumer. I think this is what bothers me the most, the condescending attitude that we can’t take care of ourselves. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for advancements in safety technologies that can advance the sport and allow riders to push the boundaries even further. But not at the cost of our freedom.