A Second GM Bankruptcy Is A Certainty If Customers Reject GM’s Use Of The DMCA To Force Them To Pay For Overpriced Dealer Maintenance


The the days of car owners playing grease monkey has slowly become a soon to be lost art and Detroit automakers want to put the stake through the heart of a pure piece of Americana and if GM succeeds, it very well could backfire on them and cause a second GM bankruptcy within 60 months.

We all know that working on and tinkering with a modern car is a very different undertaking than it was in the 1960s or 1970s. It’s no longer just about putting on a new manifold, dual carbs and modifying the exhaust system. With the advent of computers in cars over the past 25 years, working on a modern cars now involves multiple computers and usually means working with and talking to the computers embedded in the car.

With more sophisticated computers comes more elaborate software code. It has gotten to the point that these computers fall under the aegis of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and General Motors is leading the charge to claim your car now falls under the DCMA by arguing that cars are “mobile computing devices” and as such would fall under the draconian protections of the DMCA. This means if you want to modify your car by increasing the horsepower, changing the throttle response, or whatever, you’re violating the law. Even routine maintenance by a non-GM approved dealer or mechanic would be illegal.

The Auto Alliance’s (a group of carmakers including BMW Group, FCA US LLC, Ford Motor Company, General Motors Company, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo Cars North America) argues their position in a statement against a proposed exemption to allow people to work on their own cars:

Automobiles are inherently mobile, and increasingly they contain equipment that would commonly be considered computing devices… Many of the ECUs embodied in today’s motor vehicles are carefully calibrated to satisfy federal or state regulatory requirements with respect to emissions control, fuel economy, or vehicle safety. Allowing vehicle owners to add and remove programs at whim is highly likely to take vehicles out of compliance with these requirements, rendering the operation or re-sale of the vehicle legally problematic. The decision to employ access controls to hinder unauthorized “tinkering” with these vital computer programs is necessary in order to protect the safety and security of drivers and passengers and to reduce the level of non-compliance with regulatory standards. We urge the Copyright Office to give full consideration to the impacts on critical national energy and environmental goals, as well as motor vehicle safety, in its decision on this proposed exemption. Since the record on this proposal contains no evidence regarding its applicability to or impact on motor vehicles, cars and trucks should be specifically excluded from any exemption that is recommended in this area.

American tractor manufacturer John Deere has jumped on the bandwagon by claiming this wildly insane justification claiming people will use their tractors or combines to burn an illegal copy of a friend’s CD.

John Deere even argued that letting people modify car computer systems will result in them pirating music through the on-board entertainment system … (and the exemption process doesn’t authorize copyright infringement, anyway).

Sure, GM and other automakers want to keep their proprietary software out of the hands of their competitors but the parade of horror stories GM and others want you to believe makes it clear that it is an extraordinary stretch to apply the DMCA to the code that runs vehicles. The vast majority of concerns by automakers have absolutely nothing to do with copyright law and, as the automakers repeatedly point out, vehicles are subject to regulation by other government agencies with subject matter expertise, which issue rules about what vehicles are and are not lawful to operate on public roadways.

This is actually about the huge profit potential for GM and others if they can pull this off. By using DCMA, automakers can only not use the DCMA to restrict what an owner can do to the car after they buy it but DCMA could be used to force the owner to use that particular automaker’s dealer network for tire rotations, oil changes and other routine maintenance.

This endeavor of making GM customers prisoners beholden to GM dealers shows what extreme lengths GM is willing to go to retain its customers while sticking to its 50 year tradition of ignoring its quality control problems.

Anyone who has ever owned a GM product like a Cadillac knows that you are constantly replacing computer modules or something with the electrical system. Case in point, two months ago I had to replace the computer module on my Cadillac that regulates my fuel distribution system. I went to a Cadillac dealer in suburban Detroit and was told $1500 plus $200 for the computer diagnostic. I went to an independent Firestone Car Care Center and paid a total of $500.

Now granted my car was past GM’s warranty period and I bought it used. However, if consumers are forced into marriage with GM for the duration of their ownership and are required to have all mechanical work and routine maintenance done exclusively at GM dealers because of DCMA, why would GM or any other automaker have to offer a manufacturer’s warranty?

The consumer is then left with two options, pay extra for an over priced warranty or pay over inflated prices to a dealer for routine maintenance. Anyone who has ever owned a high-end GM product like a Cadillac will tell you, Cadillac dealers (especially outside of Detroit) will find creative ways to convince you something is not covered under the warranty.

If GM wants to court lifelong customers, GM needs to court customers the old fashioned way, it needs to build a better car. After all, it worked for Lee Iacocca at Chrysler in the early 1980s. If not, customers will abandon GM in droves and within five years, GM will be asking for another government handout or be facing another bankruptcy.

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