12.22.21

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The Car Drives You — Part II — Turning Computers and Cars Into Restrictive ‘Consoles’ With DRM

Posted in DRM at 8:29 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

Part 2 of at least 5 in total, belatedly encouraging a much-needed debate

Analogue speed display
Odometers are nowadays being remotely updated by some unscrupulous (self-serving) vendor, so what works today might not work tomorrow (or might work differently against the will of drivers and passengers)

Summary: There are overlapping issues in the fight for control over one’s own computing and the battle to merely maintain control over one’s own car (which one paid for); in this series we discuss aspects and developments that are typically overlooked or remain largely unspoken about

Nn Part I we looked at what has generally been happening to cars (newly-sold ones) over the past 10-20 years. Computers inside cars aren’t an entirely new thing, but that used to be limited to entertainment systems. As for microcontrollers of all sorts, those too go way back. But what’s creeping into more and more cars these days isn’t just electricity for air conditioning, wipers, and lights. It’s going a lot further than this. What’s more, all this technology is being leveraged to milk car “owners” (if they can still be called that) or alleged “drivers” (who lack control over more and more aspects of “their” cars).

Today we’ll try to focus on economic aspects for the most part; sure, financial means are becoming more meager, cars are priced higher than ever (even if inflation-adjusted), and price/money isn’t the most important thing. In later parts we’ll focus on more philosophical and technical aspects, quite likely while name-dropping the F-word (“Freedom”) every now and then in the context of software freedom.

“…all this technology is being leveraged to milk car “owners” (if they can still be called that) or alleged “drivers” (who lack control over more and more aspects of “their” cars).”As Ryan put it this past weekend: “Maybe quote me on the parody of where all of these “subscriptions” could go. My aunt always got a new Chevy every 2 years, and it was because the old one was malfunctioning. Then she’d brag about always having a new car. One of them, a Chevy Nova, started filling up with water every time it rained, and they were waiting for the car to turn 2 so they would have paid off enough of the loan to trade it in for another car. They had it in for warranty repair like 14 times or something, and finally she asked the service guy “You’re never going to fix this, are you?” and he replied, “I’m not allowed to tell you that.” So they waited for a day where it wasn’t raining and drove up to the sales department and traded it in. When mom gave the Impala, it was flooding because the holes in the bottom of the door panel were plugged up with leaves and dirt and shit. So I drove it down to a car wash and pumped the water out using the vacuum. [...] I think I probably pumped out like 30 gallons or so. It was awful. Major thunderstorm the night before.”

That’s just an anecdote, but note how car mechanics aren’t allowed to say much (or anything). They’re subjected to Orwellian contracts. This is what cars are turning into and what mechanics too have become. You cannot repair your cars, you’re barely allowed to even attempt that, and those who are authorised to fix things work in a secretive fashion under the thumb of manufacturers.

I’ve been driving since the 1990s (as a teenager) and I was already upset enough about electric windows, seeing how frequently something would go wrong with them. And yes, they are a repair nightmare, both in terms of feasibility and in terms of cost. They’re not simple to fix, especially on one’s own. Back then we had no “apps” and GPS and stuff inside cars; the level of interaction between bits of the cars was very limited, so fewer things could go wrong, including remote updates (“get the latest version, press “OK” to agree to new terms and hope nothing gets bricked”).

“I’ve been driving since the 1990s (as a teenager) and I was already upset enough about electric windows, seeing how frequently something would go wrong with them.”Nowadays, in 2021 (almost 2022), the sorts of things they put on sale all come with such nasty stuff included; they even presume everyone carries around tracking devices (so-called ‘phones’) and wants to get all the latest, useless gimmicks (you cannot opt out; it’s part of the car as a “standard” “feature”).

As Ryan put it: “What concerns me is the selective disabling of features and the fact that a lot of the diagnostic troubleshooting codes can only now be accessed with dealership computers when previously the codes were all standard. This is obviously something they do to make their dealers happy. When you can only have the car worked on by a shop that charges three hundred percent more for labor. I’m a lot happier with an old piece of junk that runs than I would be with one of these modern cars. Even with lots of repairs, the modern cars cost 3.5-4x as much on average to make payments to banks and insurance companies. And they start depreciating immediately. By the time it’s 2 years old, nobody wants to give you half of what you paid for it, and that’s even if you managed to avoid any major damage. The great thing about an old car is they’re pre-dented and pre-scratched. Some lady that didn’t speak any English parked next to me and the wind caught her door a couple of days ago. WHACK! Right into the side of my car, and it scuffed some plastic trim a little, but I didn’t care. The car’s 20 years old. The body already has scratches and dents and a mismatched front bumper and a bit of rust. You get a new car and you end up parking it out in the middle of nowhere, right, and then some asshole driving an old jalopy parks out in the middle of nowhere next to you and hits your car anyway. And then you’re really pissed because you JUST SIGNED THE PAPERWORK and you owe $60,000 of your life to this finance bank. You were hoping people would see you in a nice new car and say “Hey, he’s doing okay!” and then when it was time, you’d sell it and get one of your testicles back.”

Pardon the colourful language.

“I’ve had some really horrible cars,” Ryan added. “The worst one was a 1995 Chevy Corsica, and a 1995 Ford Taurus wasn’t far behind that. But the problem was that the original owners just didn’t take good care of them. People buy a new car and then they don’t even bother to do the most basic upkeep and it goes straight to hell.”

In the posts that we published some days ago we used the example of what Toyota had been doing. As Ryan put it, “what Toyota is doing ensures that the car essentially will have no resale value at all, and that’s just stunning.”

MinceR said, “better get a Toyota from before 2018… though I wonder if the Land Cruiser J70s they’re still making have any of this cellular backdoor bullshit in them; it’s supposed to be an old design, after all, not very luxurious.”

“I don’t really care about luxury,” Ryan said, “I care about getting places.”

“…one can only imagine what level of spying will come next (or tugged along with the next system update for the car).”“Because the Japanese brands were like the last holdouts,” Ryan continued, “which actually cared about producing stuff that held up, and they would advertise that most of the stuff they built was on the road 20 or 30 years later with half a million miles on it.”

MinceR said: “Remote Start might still be a luxury feature and to some extent, so’s any other feature they’d implement with that cellular connectivity.”

“The Toyota debacle means that it’ll be necessary to figure out how to “hack the car” somehow to obey a radio command from a keyfob,” Ryan said. “This is beyond ridiculous, and then as soon as there’s a recall out and you take it to the dealer, they’ll probably update the computer so your key doesn’t work again. This is now called a “security update”. You have no control. If you have control of your property, it’s a “security hole”. So unless you can avoid the dealership forever after you figure out how to “hack the car”, assuming that’s even possible, you have to subscribe to a radio key for a remote starter that’s already there. I think we need to reiterate the remote starter thing, because it sounds dumb, but if people accept it, what’s next? You have to subscribe for $5 a month or your FM radio doesn’t work? I think $7 a month or else your heated seats don’t work is totally reasonable. You wouldn’t want your butt getting cold when it’s -10F outside. What about air conditioning? We could do basic and premium air conditioning. If you want to set it below 78 degrees, you need a $6 a month premium air conditioning subscription. You own the car after all. Those $850 a month “basic Toyota” payments testify to that. Toyota Air Conditioning Home Basic Starter Edition. Brought to you by Microsoft. There’s a parody article in this somewhere. This all makes manufacturing very simple. All of the cars that go out have exactly the same features. And you have to pay to access the ones you want. It’s probably cheaper for Toyota to use these “anytime upgrades” to segment the market rather than guess wrong about supply and demand for each possible feature combination and have remaining inventory that needs marked down. Then in return for helping them optimize their supply chain, you get to pay through the nose to turn on all of the things you could have just bought forever previously. It’s exactly like Windows, except it’s actual hardware that costs Toyota money to put in and then to disable. Intel started downmarket by selling physically defective processors cheaper after burning out the cache memory that didn’t work properly. (the Celeron) Now they’re getting such reliable yields that to make a downmarket processor, they need to do it intentionally. But they’re still getting better at the yields, so eventually there will only be a few actual physical models, but they all selectively disable features and then you have to pay more money to make those features work. I bought a Toyota, but it’s driving me nuts! “What’s wrong with it?” Oh, my free trial of Cruise Control ran out and now I have to keep my foot on the pedal!”

On the privacy aspects he noted: “I noticed something about the way mom and dad both drive. They speed up towards stop lights and then jam on the brakes. No wonder they don’t want to plug in a device that bills them based on how safely they’re driving. Not a physics major….”

With these sorts of things considered legal, one can only imagine what level of spying will come next (or tugged along with the next system update for the car).

In the next part we’ll focus a bit on DRM-like aspects and then look at the number of small and large computers which come included in today’s cars. It’s more than an order of magnitude higher than most people care to realise.

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