Thursday, October 29, 2015

You thought you owned your car? Well NOW you do!

This week the government issued an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to allow the modification of automotive electronics systems. You might not know it, but this has far reaching effects on the entire automotive industry and on you as the owner of a car. I’ll show you why.

You walk into a Barnes & Noble, you pick up a copy of Look Me in the Eye, you hand the cashier money and you leave the store. The book now belongs to you, right? Of course it does. You are free to write notes in the margins, sell it second-hand to a friend, or even rip it up if you felt so inclined. What you can’t do is copy portions of it and claim them as your own work; you own your copy of the book, but not the copyright.

This is pretty straightforward and doesn’t violate most people’s understanding of copyright and ownership. But let's say you skipped the Barnes & Noble and instead went to Walmart to buy a Sony PS3, is it any different? Actually it is. When the PS3 was released, many tech enthusiasts were eager to buy such a powerful computer for such a low price, despite it masquerading as a gaming machine. They would install Linux on their PS3 and use it as a desktop computer. To their dismay, Sony responded with lawsuits claiming copyright violation. Under the DMCA corporations have gained sweeping powers to effectively retain ownership even after the item has been sold. Apple has given the same treatment to iPhone owners who have had the audacity to try to install software that Apple hasn’t personally signed off on, i.e. iPhone owners who "jailbreak" their phones.

Copyright has gone far beyond what its original intent was, and beyond how most people understand it to work. Instead of being used to prevent copying, it is now also used to prevent modification – even if there is no commercial angle to the modification and the only purpose is better satisfying the wants of the owner. Maybe taking notes in the margin of your favorite book isn’t so clearly legal after all; the fact that such an argument could be made demonstrates the ridiculousness of the DMCA and how it hurts customers.

Auto manufacturers have exploited the you-own-what-you-buy-except-for-when-we-don’t-like-how-you-use-it DMCA too. Want to reprogram your engine ECU? You might be violating the DMCA. Really, any work done on the electronics in a car risks violating the DMCA. This exposed tinkerers and independent shops alike to a tremendous risk, leaving official dealerships as the only safe route for these repairs. But fret not, all of that changed this past Tuesday. In a first, the government has issued an exception to the DMCA to explicitly allow tinkering with automotive electronics and software.

So what pushed the government to do this? In large part it was the recent VW scandal. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) argued that the DMCA had prevented independent shops and tinkerers from testing and identifying VW’s deception for years – and the government listened. That said, it’s a real shame that it takes a very public deception being uncovered to change the law. And it begs the question- how much deception, negligence, and incompetence is still being covered up in all of the areas without a DMCA exemption? Don’t expect an answer, because as the EFF has pointed out the DMCA has a chilling effect on security research. Researchers of both the academic and DIY types steer clear of looking for such problems because by finding them they may violate the DMCA and come under legal pressure. That means the only major effort to root out security vulnerabilities and misrepresentations is under the table, and the hackers doing such work don’t tend to have the good of the public in mind.

The exemption on Tuesday is a great start, but in the grand scheme it is a mere baby step. The DMCA is preventing you from having products that you can trust. And it is quite telling how many corporations view their customers when they pursue unpaid volunteers trying to fix their mistakes. You’d think they’d be happy such people are out there. To be sure, some corporations are – but the good guys don’t have the same lobbying power. And that’s because the supporters of the DMCA view their customers as their own assets, as subjects who are only allowed to play with the toys they’ve bought within the officially sanctioned sandbox. I hope the trend reverses, but we’re going to need to expose deception, negligence, or the more benign incompetence in far more areas than the automotive industry alone.

We strive for the highest quality of repair. Our customers are the owners of their cars, not the manufacturers. This exemption helps both our customers and us; it explicitly clarifies that when you go to get your car repaired all you should be thinking about is the quality of work you’re going to receive. The car’s previous owner, the manufacturer, or anyone else has no place putting themselves in the middle of that. We rely on satisfying the wants of our customers to the greatest extent that is possible, and maintaining good communications throughout the process. You thought you owned your car before, now thanks to this exemption you actually do. This change puts the choice of who works on your car back where it should be – completely in your hands.
~guest blogger: Jack Robison

Monday, October 12, 2015

Engine Noises and Surprise in a Porsche 911 -

How often do seeming disparate problems converge with symptoms that seem to go together?  It’s rare but it happens.

This car – a 2003 Porsche 911 C4s - came in with a nasty rattle in the engine, and a fault code for a camshaft position error.  Like most mechanics the owner took that to mean the tensioner or the intermediate shaft bearing had gone bad, and the engine was in imminent danger of self-destructing.

We saw no reason to disagree with that assessment, and we expected the diagnosis to be validated on teardown.  When we installed the holding tools to keep the cams and crank lined up we found one cam slightly off.

But when we removed the transaxle and looked at the IMS bearing it was tight. 

There were no signs of metal in the oil.

All we found was slight grab marks on one tensioner, indicating it may have slipped back a bit.  We therefore had an explanation for the slack. But we didn’t have an explanation for the nasty rattle.  We looked inside with a fiber optic camera, and saw nothing.

The technician decided to put the flywheel on the engine, fit new tensioners, a new IMS bearing, and start the motor to listen without the transaxle in the way.  When he did, the result was surprising.  The cam position fault was gone, but the noise was unchanged.  The clatter sounded just like it was coming from the timing chains.

But it wasn’t.  As you see in this short video the noise was emanating from the flywheel.

With a new flywheel and new tensioners, the cam faults were gone, and the rattle was fixed.

The dual mass flywheel was not visibly bad, but its slop was at the extreme limit of the acceptable range.  The noise was obvious, though, once it was twisted hard.   

What is the takeaway from this?  Sometimes two totally different problems will appear virtually at once, and by combining their symptoms you can imagine a very different diagnostic path.  Many times motorists come to us with a list of problems and the hope that there is one thing - the magic bullet failure - that will cure them all.  We have to explain that worn brakes and oil leaks have nothing to do with one another.  And rarely - as in this case - the opposite happens.  A car comes in with seemingly related symptoms, but in reality it has two totally independent failures.

Or are they independent?  Thinking more on this, we theorize that the failing flywheel may have set up a vibration pattern at the back of the engine that caused the timing chain tensioners to vibrate internally, and one to eventually stick.  

Many techs would have changed those tensioners and then reassembled everything. And from outside, the noise would have seemed like chain noise for sure.  The next step – an unnecessary engine teardown.

No matter how much you know, cars can always surprise you.  

(c) 2015 John Elder Robison
John Elder Robison is the general manager of J E Robison Service Company, celebrating 30 years of independent Porsche restoration and repair in Springfield, Massachusetts.  John is a longtime technical consultant to the Porsche clubs, and he’s owned and restored many fine specimens.  Find him online at or in the real world at 413-785-1665

Reading this article will make you smarter, especially when it comes to car stuff.  So it's good for you.  But don't take that too far - printing and eating it will probably make you sick.