Engine Chip Tuning: Is it Legal?
The right performance chip or engine control unit can change the software in your engine’s computer, giving you more horsepower or more efficiency. In theory, it’s your vehicle, so you can do whatever you want to it.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers would like to change that. This group of 12 automobile manufacturers seeks to prohibit car owners from changing the software in their cars. But do they have legal grounds to make that claim?
The Digital Millennium Copyright Act
It all comes down to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Passed in 1998, the DMCA was designed to specifically deal with issues of copyright and intellectual property in the digital age. At the time, it dealt with music, movies, software, and other digital products.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is petitioning to have the software within the car’s computer covered under the DMCA. They claim that they have a copyright on the software. Like software companies, they’d like to limit the ability of the consumer to copy or modify the software. If the petition is approved, then it could prevent car owners from performing any modification that changes the software.
The Argument for Limiting ECU Tuning
At first glance this push against chip tuning might seem like it’s out of left field, but there is logic behind the Alliance’s case. Early engine computers might have only determined one thing, such as the fuel/air ratio in the fuel injector. Modern cars can have over 80 different computers or chips scattered around the vehicle. They can control everything from the engine to the anti-lock brake system to the steering to emissions.
When a car leaves the factory, the software is carefully set to very specific parameters. Some of these ensure that the car meets emission standards. Others ensure that the car meets safety standards, efficiency standards, and more. If someone changes these settings without knowing what they’re doing, the results can be damage the vehicle, and may even lead to accidents.
The Argument Against Limiting ECU Tuning
Opponents and car enthusiasts are aware that there are risks to any customization, but contend that these risks are actually very minor. To put things in perspective, they’ll point to classic cars. For example, a car from the 1950s will not be up to modern standards, no matter how well maintained it is. Even if adding performance chips to modern cars makes them slightly less safe, they’ll still be safer, cleaner, and in more compliance with standards than older cars.
But the biggest argument they have against limitations is the infringement of ownership rights. Placing remapping or other software modifications under the DMCA means that car owners only have a license to the software, rather than full ownership. This would mean that the car companies would own part of your car, and have a direct say in what you do with it. Opponents are also concerned about it being a slippery slope. For example, a different set of rims changes the parameters the software works with, and could then no longer be allowed.
Before you get any performance chip, chip tuning, engine remapping, or other software work done, it’s a good idea to check with a pro. They’ll be able to give you the most recent updates on the progression of the debate to help you make your decision.