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It's Not Just VW: A Robust Market For Reprogramming Vehicles


Lawmakers want to know more about Volkswagen's massive cheat — how the automaker used software to crank up the power on a vehicle, and then hide the fact. By now everyone's heard of the VW emissions cheating scandal. But less discussed are the many products on the Internet that let you do, in essence, the same thing.

Dieselgate did not happen in a vacuum. There's an entire market — called the performance tuning market — that helps car owners to game the system.

Local mechanics know about it. Like the guys at Left Coast Diesel in Concord, Calif. It's known as the diesel shop in the Bay Area. There are about a dozen Fords, Dodges and Chevys in the garage. And on any given day, about half of them come in with something called a "tuner" installed.

Manager Robert Myers points to a truck that has one. He won't divulge who the owner is. But basically, the customer (who's here on other business) installed a kind of handheld computer — just plugged it a port in the pickup truck (known as the OBD-II port). And then, he or she could change settings, Myers explains, "to be able to get more horsepower, be able to get better towing, be able to get better fuel economy."

The point is to reprogram the specs, so the pickup has more torque to haul heavy things or can jump sand dunes or just go longer on less fuel. One downside is, that could mean more, maybe way more, NOx, or nitrogen exide, emissions (the kind VW dumped into the air).

In terms of this particular tuner, Myers says, "I don't think this has a federal emissions sticker. I don't think it's CARB EO legal.

CARB EO legal means it's been approved by the California Air Resources Board, because it doesn't jack up emissions. Very few tuners are approved in this state, which is on the strict end. And there are a handful of cases of tuner manufacturers, such as H&S Performance and Edge Products LLC, getting fined.

Most states do not have an oversight system. Left Coast Diesel owner Erik Lind says, it's super easy to find a hundred ways to make your vehicle powerful anddirty, just by hacking the software.

A World Of 'Custom Tunes'

We go to his office and, on his computer, he goes to Amazon. "That's where I buy everything," he says.

He types in "diesel tuner" and, just like that, we get products by companies called Edge, Bully Dog and H&S. We click on a popular one by SCT that has 124 customer reviews and 4 out of 5 stars. It costs $359, on markdown.

"[It] will even store custom tunes if you want to have someone make you a custom tune," Lind says.

Custom tunes are settings specially designed by a third party to optimize power on particular vehicles.

A software tuner is kind of like a car stereo. It often has a default. Then you set the stations you want — public radio, country, hip hop, house, metal. And you just hit a button to flip the station on a stereo — or the horsepower in a vehicle.

With some tuners, you can flip even while you're driving. "[if] there's a corvette next to you and you want to race him from a stoplight, you can hit level 5 and go crazy," Lind says.

When it's time to go in for a smog test, you just hit 1 to go back to the default. It's not as sophisticated as the VW hack — which automatically sensed when the car was being inspected. Still, Lind says, it gets the job done. "When you're done, go back out in the parking lot, plug it in and give yourself all the power and mileage back."

Is It Illegal?

The aftermarket industry is not hidden. It's easy to find. But it's not clear if it's legal. The question turns on two areas of law: environmental law and, perhaps less obviously, copyright law.

Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, says how the tuner takes control, technically, matters. If it takes a copy of the automaker's software and modifies it, "that might be illegal" under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. If, however, the tuner runs on its own software, written from scratch, "that's perfectly kosher," Cardozo says. "There's no way of knowing without being inside the code to tell."

Automakers have taken a hard stance that anything modifying their software violates the DMCA. Still, they are not suing and shutting down the small companies that make software tuners. Cardozo believes that is because the aftermarket tuners "actually add value to the car. If I buy a Ford Focus at bargain basement prices, and I can add software to make it more powerful, it increases value. It might behoove the automakers to look the other way. It creates an additional market for their cars," he says.

Clean air violations — whether a tuner makes a vehicle emit above federally accepted levels — are hard to prove because software hacks are much harder to detect than physical changes.

When someone rips out the filter from the exhaust, that's easy to spot. It's a clear violation (diesel hobbyists who like to emit black smoke, " roll coal," are facing sanctions now). By contrast, inspectors don't see when you reprogram the computer code.

"You can't tell any difference between the way it's operating in the testing situation and what it would supposedly do in the real world," says Bill Rand, a computer scientist and business professor at the University of Maryland.

NPR reached out to more than a dozen tuner manufacturers, to ask if their products track or control emissions levels. Only one responded. Tunit, based in the United Kingdom, says in an email that one university study found the company's product reduced emissions.

Rand says as lawmakers consider the fate of Volkswagen, they may want to look at the aftermarket too. "One of the things that government needs to address is how do we make sure that those modifications, those changes are still something that is legal to do," he says.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.
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