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Monthly Archives: April 2017

The Right to Tinker With Cars’ Software

Last month, officials gave auto enthusiasts who want to beef up their car’s performance the right to tinker with vehicle software without incurring the legal wrath of carmakers. The decision was one of many changes to a federal copyright law, including allowing people to “jailbreak” their mobile phones and reprogram older video games.

Digital-rights activists have applauded the changes, which are scheduled to take effect next year. But environmental regulators and carmakers have warned that the decision opens a new front in a cat-and-mouse game with car lovers who soup up their engines — perhaps violating emissions standards.

Volkswagen has admitted using deceptive software on a corporate scale to evade emissions limits on some of its diesel cars. But long before the VW scandal, individual car owners turned to aftermarket components or software fixes to increase engine performance in ways that could produce more pollution.

The practice was so widespread nearly a decade ago that the Environmental Protection Agency outlawed a defeat device known as an oxygen sensor simulator. Such units made it look as if a car’s catalytic converter was working properly, even if it was disconnected.

More recently, Edge Products, a maker of auto components in Ogden, Utah, agreed to pay a $500,000 fine in 2013 for selling devices that let owners of diesel pickup trucks to disconnect an emissions-control component without activating a warning light. The environmental impact of the devices, which were sold under the Edge Racing brand name, was significant. Federal regulators said the more than 9,000 pickup trucks equipped with the unit emitted excess pollution equal to the amount generated by 422 new long-haul trucks operating for 29 years.

Practices like these can be taken to extremes. For instance, there is “coal rolling” — the practice of modifying diesel pickup trucks to intentionally belch clouds of black smoke, often from upright exhaust pipes that look like chrome-plated smokestacks. An employee of Parleys Diesel Performance, a company in St. George, Utah, that makes the towering, customized exhaust pipes, said, “It is not the goal of our company to help people blast out black smoke.”

The pipes themselves are perfectly legal. The smoke is created by modifying the car to increase the amount of fuel going to a vehicle’s engine without increasing air intake.

Today’s cars contain sophisticated engine control software that determines how a vehicle’s engine operates, including fuel efficiency and exhaust emissions. In Volkswagen’s case, software could detect when a car was being tested for emissions and activate its pollution controls, then deactivate them when the car was being driven normally.

Carmakers and companies that supply emissions-testing equipment have long been on the lookout for tinkerers. Mr. Norris, the Indiana car customizer, said that auto companies began using special techniques about a decade ago to detect if a car’s factory-installed software had been altered. Altered software, he said, could give the carmakers a reason to void the warranty.

One emissions-testing company, Opus Systems, uses a patented method to identify cars equipped with devices built to fool state inspection equipment. “Our method is meant to catch fraud by individual car owners,” said Lothar Geilen, the chief executive of Opus, which supplies emissions-testing equipment to 22 states.

The latest avenue for engine tinkering was opened last month when the Library of Congress, which oversees the United States Copyright Office, approved several new exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, a far-reaching 1998 statute that was meant to bring copyright law into the digital era. Every three years, federal officials review potential exemptions to the rule.

As part of the latest three-year review, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group based in San Francisco, filed petitions seeking changes to parts of the laws that prohibited consumers from unlocking software “access controls” on certain products. Two of the petitions dealt directly with vehicle software, including software used to control a car’s engine and emissions-control units.

Kit Walsh, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the group believed that researchers and car owners needed access to vehicle software not only to make repairs or to adjust a car’s performance, but also to improve security. To demonstrate security vulnerabilities in automotive software, two security experts, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, recently performed an experiment in which they remotely hacked into a Jeep Cherokee and took control from the driver.

it could compromise vehicle safety, given the increasingly complex software systems being used to control cars and alert drivers to hazards.


Automakers are looking toward a technology-driven future, one where they increasingly acknowledge that getting around may not require owning a car.

On Tuesday, two of the world’s largest automakers, Toyota and Volkswagen, said they were stepping up to invest in technology start-ups that are working to change the way people travel by car. Toyota said it had formed a partnership with and invested an undisclosed amount in Uber, the biggest ride-hailing company. Gett, the app popular in Europe, said it was working with Volkswagen, and the automaker was investing $300 million in the start-up.

The alliances are the latest in a string of pairings between technology companies and traditional automakers that are scrambling to reposition themselves. For decades, automakers had abided by the well-worn formula of making bigger and more powerful cars to fuel their growth.

But start-ups like Uber and Lyft and technology companies like Google and Tesla have disrupted that cadence. These companies, mostly located in Silicon Valley, have in the last few years sped the development of self-driving cars, electric vehicles and ride services.

Automakers have become increasingly concerned about those technologies and their potential to help people travel easily and cheaply without owning a car — or even without knowing how to drive.

In some American cities, small groups of people are already choosing not to own cars by relying on ride-hailing services like Uber, through which consumers can order a ride through their smartphone, and car-sharing companies like Zipcar, where they essentially pick up a car whenever they need to drive one. Eventually, self-driving cars will be a reality, which would let Uber and others field fleets of driverless vehicles that can operate around the clock and further cut the cost of ride services.

“Ride-sharing has huge potential in terms of shaping the future of mobility,” Shigeki Tomoyama, senior managing officer of Toyota, said in a statement about partnering with Uber. “We would like to explore new ways of delivering secure, convenient and attractive mobility services to customers.”

Karl Brauer, an analyst at the research firm Kelley Blue Book, said there was no sign that car-sharing or ride-sharing — sometimes called “mobility services” — was slowing auto sales today. Auto sales in the United States hit a record high in 2015 and are on the rise this year, and China and other international markets will ensure the global auto market continues to grow.

Nevertheless, auto companies are investing in companies like Uber “to be ahead of the curve” if they do shake up car ownership down the road, Mr. Brauer said. “History has shown that if you wait for the market to decide, you’re dead,” he said.

In January, General Motors invested $500 million in Lyft, the ride-hailing app popular with American users, with a focus on developing networks of autonomous vehicles. Ford Motor is making over its Dearborn, Mich., headquarters into a Silicon Valley-like campus of green buildings connected by self-driving shuttles.

And a few weeks ago, Fiat Chrysler and Google agreed to produce a test fleet of driverless minivans. Both BMW and Mercedes-Benz have started to pilot ride services.

Even other technology companies only tangentially related to automobiles are becoming more involved in ride services. Apple, which is working on its own autos project, said this month it had invested $1 billion in Didi Chuxing, a Chinese ride-hailing company that competes fiercely with Uber.

Last June, Uber said it had approximately 20,000 regular drivers in the Chinese city of Chengdu alone, on par with the approximately 22,000 drivers in San Francisco and 26,000 in New York at the time.

But global expansion requires capital — lots of it. Companies like Uber have tapped venture capitalists, strategic partners and large institutional investors at the rate of about once every six monthsto amass enough money to keep introducing operations in new cities. In total, Uber has raised more than $10 billion from several firms to wage its land war across multiple continents.

With the Toyota partnership, Uber gets other perks apart from money. The company, based in San Francisco, which was valued at $62.5 billion in December, plans to expand its vehicle financing program with Toyota, whose cars are among the most popular with Uber drivers. Customers can lease Toyota vehicles through the program and are able to pay down the cost by driving for Uber.

Toyota said that in its work with Uber, the companies would also cooperate on trials in countries where ride-hailing is growing.

The companies also plan to develop in-car apps that support Uber drivers, and to share their knowledge and research, they said.

Volkswagen has been slower to jump on the mobility bandwagon, partly because it has been consumed by an emission-cheating scandal involving its diesel models. After those revelations, Volkswagen replaced its chief executive, about a dozen top managers departed, its VW-brand sales skidded in the United States and it set aside $18 billion to cover scandal-related costs.

Next month, Volkswagen is supposed to detail a plan to buy back or repair about 500,000 diesel models that had the cheating software and were sold in the United States.

Cars Connect With Your Fridge

Even now, Amazon’s voice-activated home assistant, Alexa, can order up an Uber ride or find out how much gas is in a car’s tank while the driver is still in the house.

BMW announced this month that its Connected services would enable Alexa owners to lock the car doors and check car battery levels from the comfort of their sofas.

Ford Motor plans to introduce Alexa integration into vehicles, including the Escape and Fusion, before the end of this year, said James A. Buczkowski, who oversees advanced engineering at Ford.

“Your spouse could add things to the shopping list, which your car would alert you to,” Mr. Buczkowski said. The updated list could then automatically tip off the car’s navigation system about where to pick up the last-minute items.

The first generation of connected systems like G.M.’s OnStar were focused on helping drivers when they were lost or their cars broke down, and the second generation has been about connecting the dashboard to smartphones for streaming live traffic information or audio services like Pandora, said Mr. Moinzadeh at Airbiquity.

The next generation, he said, will focus on managing our entire digital lives, aided by semiautonomous systems that assume more responsibility for actual driving tasks.

“Once we get to the world of autonomous driving, these cars are not going to be about horsepower but about the in-vehicle experience and how it’s connected to your lifestyle,” Mr. Moinzadeh said. “The car will talk to all your connected things, whether it’s your refrigerator or your home security system.”

Mercedes-Benz is among the automakers intent on integrating cars more fully into the mobile communications network, without waiting to peg it to autonomous driving.

“The car is developing into a quality-time machine,” Dieter Zetsche, chief executive of Daimler, the parent of Mercedes-Benz, said last month at the IFA consumer electronics show in Berlin.

Next year, Mr. Zetsche said, the company’s In Car Office services will automatically connect drivers to scheduled conference calls and navigate to appointments based on calendar entries.

Other industry executives see potential health and safety applications.

“In health care, it’s about monitoring people and how they are behaving,” said Bret Greenstein, vice president for the Watson internet-of-things artificial intelligence division at IBM.

Driver attentiveness can be assessed by a combination of sensors in the car, including acoustic monitors, eye trackers and wearable devices, Mr. Greenstein said.

“Even how fast or safely you drive tells us about your mood and well-being,” he said.

Brain waves and heart rates can indicate stress, according to Mr. Buczkowski of Ford. Such signals might then tell the car to block incoming calls or switch the audio system from AC/DC to Yanni.

The welter of onboard sensors, Mr. Buczkowski said, could turn the car into a four-wheeled digital stethoscope that compiles a continuous record of your condition, generating a more accurate assessment of your health compared with the snapshot of a once-a-year checkup.

Between the digital dreams and the on-road reality, though, there are technological challenges, according to Chris Penrose, who oversees the internet-of-things group at AT&T. The company, he said, is working on such efforts with nearly 20 different auto brands around the world.

But right now, for example, there is no single networking standard for internet-of-things devices, even in the so-called smart home segment. There are multiple wireless systems, including ZigBee and Z-Wave, and no single software platform has taken hold.

Apple’s HomeKit has been slow to gain traction in the market. And Alphabet, which owns the popular Nest smart thermostat, will not roll out Google Home — meant to compete with Amazon’s Alexa — until November.

“There are multiple gateways into the house now,” said Danny Shapiro, senior director of automotive technology for the Silicon Valley company Nvidia.

Onboard car systems must have access to the vast amount of information accumulating from all these devices to take advantage fully of the internet of things, Mr. Shapiro said. “But if there is no standard,” he said, “it makes it very difficult.”

Mr. Buczkowski acknowledges the hurdles. Separate and incompatible systems from Google and Amazon might be able to compete or coexist in the home market. But cars operate in the public sphere and will need to share information with traffic systems, parking meters and other cars.

“Vehicles from Ford, G.M., Honda, etc., will all have to talk to each other,” Mr. Buczkowski said. “How do we manage it — and who manages it?”

Such questions raise concerns about security, privacy and safety. Connecting cars to the internet of things means introducing more potential threats. Two security researchers last year demonstrated their ability to hack remotely into a moving Jeep’s software and operate the vehicle’s brakes and steering.

Just this month, hackers released a basic program called Mirai for hijacking smart TVs, cable boxes, DVRs and webcams. In health care, Johnson & Johnson recently revealed a security vulnerability in its Animas OneTouch Ping insulin pump that could let someone remotely interfere with its operation.

“In automotive, it’s a unique situation because the device is traveling at 60 or 70 miles per hour,” Mr. Moinzadeh said.

There is also the sheer ubiquity of automobiles. Everything around us will be connected, including people and cities, said Mohamad Nasser, general manager of the internet-of-things business at Sprint, the mobile communications company.

While being constantly online may have its drawbacks, it also makes vehicles more resilient, experts say. More and more, as Tesla has already demonstrated, our cars will be upgradable over the air, making them easier to update and repair. And if cars are communicating with their surroundings and one another, the benefits will outweigh the risks, many predict.

Make Self-Driving Cars

 Automobiles will cooperate with BMW to develop self-driving cars, the companies said Wednesday, as traditional automakers look to defend their turf against cash-rich Silicon Valley giants eager to upend the industry.

Autonomous vehicles are expected to transform the auto industry within the next decade. The new technology pits established carmakers, with their decades of experience and global supply chains, against the likes of Google and Apple, which have much greater financial resources as well as greater expertise in the software that will be crucial to the development of driverless vehicles.

Fiat Chrysler has struggled more than most carmakers to compete in this new world because of meager profits. The company has largely stayed on the sidelines while rivals like Volkswagen or General Motors moved into technology-oriented businesses like car sharing or digital mapping.

But on Wednesday, Fiat Chrysler said that it would join BMW’s existing alliance with Intel and the chip maker’s newly acquired self-driving technology unit, Mobileye. Fiat Chrysler and BMW said they were open to additional partners.

“There was an expectation Fiat Chrysler was resigned to being a hardware manufacturer for Apple or Google,” said James Hodgson, a senior analyst at ABI Research. “This is a sign that they are going to take a more active role.”

Since last year, BMW has been working with Intel and Mobileye, an Israeli company that makes cameras, sensors and software used in self-driving vehicles. Intel acquired Mobileye in a deal that closed last week, in what was seen as an attempt by the chip maker to catch up with its rival Nvidia in self-driving technology.

Fiat Chrysler is not likely to bring much self-driving know-how to the alliance, Mr. Hodgson said. But, he noted, its experience producing less expensive, mass market vehicles will complement BMW’s strong position in the high end of the car market.

“In order to advance autonomous driving technology,” Sergio Marchionne, the chief executive of Fiat Chrysler said in a statement, “it is vital to form partnerships among automakers, technology providers and suppliers.”

Still, it will be a huge challenge for established carmakers to remain relevant. They are experts in manufacturing vehicles that run on internal combustion engines in large numbers for affordable prices. But that skill will become less relevant if, as expected, battery-powered cars become ubiquitous. Electric vehicles have fewer parts than their conventional counterparts and are easier to manufacture.

In addition, the financial resources of the Silicon Valley companies dwarf those of the automakers. Apple is worth 40 times as much on the stock market as Fiat Chrysler. Indeed, if they chose to, Apple or Google could acquire a carmaker for sums that, by their standards, would amount to pocket change.