EFF proposals could hinder telematics insurance companies in US

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Digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation has moved to dismantle copyright legislation that prevents car owners from tinkering with their own vehicle's software programming.

The USA’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), a series of copyright laws that aims to protect the rights of both copyright owners and consumers, restricts access to a car’s electronic control unit (ECU) on the grounds of vehicle safety.

A host of requests have been filed with the Librarian of Congress in the hopes of retracting some parts of the DMCA, such as the car-specific legislation. However there is a worry that this could interfere with telematics companies, which use ECUs to track vehicle movements.

Opting out

Telematics, a term used to describe the combination of telecommunications, vehicular technologies, road transportation, road safety, electrical engineering and computer science, is used by financial companies to provide car insurance for certain demographics.

Drivers that are looking for a more affordable insurance premium might agree to the vehicle tracking that telematics provides. For example high risk groups might be looking to demonstrate they are worthy of a lower quote and careful drivers could use the technology to prove they are attentive on the road.

Consumers argue that the EFF’s proposals give them the ability to opt out of telematics technologies if they become more commonplace in the future by modifying the code found in these vehicle ECUs.

The EFF does say that not all ECI code is copyrightable and not all ECUs are locked down in a way that prevents DCMA liability, but it is concerned that consumers should not have to hire a lawyer to discover which code can be edited without reprimand.

An unhappy insurance community

In a statement to Connected Car Tech, the Insurance Information Institute said that car insurance companies in the US would be unhappy if drivers had the opportunity to alter their vehicle’s ECU code.

“I doubt strongly that a typical U.S. auto insurer would want a situation whereby their policyholder could manipulate the auto insurer-installed telematics device,” it said.

“Changing the ways in which driving data is collected by an auto insurer would defeat the purpose of writing a telematics-based policy.”

It is unclear how long the EFF will have to wait to see the results of its legal campaign, but there is a good chance they will find an opponent in many of the country’s insurance companies that make use of telematics technology.



Zurich responded to Connected Car Tech's call for comment on the situation with the following:

"While generally favoring increases in personal freedom when coupled with personal responsibility, Zurich does not currently support efforts to modify section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) as it pertains to access to the code of the electronic control units (ECU's).

As drive by wire, adaptive cruise, lane centering and other safety innovations are increasingly built into vehicles, the interconnectedness of safety and operational systems is also drastically increasing with each model year. By allowing access to the ECU, the liability for system failures and any resulting accidents increases for anyone altering the OEM code, whether they intended the result or not.

In our view, the systems should remain protected at this time, not necessarily to protect intellectual property, but rather to maintain the integrity of the safety systems reliant on the code."

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