One Hundred Weeks Of Legal Car Hacking

There is a scene in the movie “Magic Mike” where the lead character — a male stripper — explains to a room of women the laws against having physical contact with a performer. Then he intones, “… but I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house.”

We know if we could look out through the Web browser, we could say the same thing. There’s a lot of gray zone activities considered commonplace. Have you ever ripped a CD or DVD to take with your on your phone? Gray; we won’t judge. A lot of the legal issues involved are thorny (and I should point out, I’m not a lawyer, so take what I say with a grain of salt).

Do you own your car? Well, probably you and the bank, but certainly the deal you made involves the idea that you own the car. If it is paid off, you can do what you like with it, including — if you wanted to — stripping it bare for parts. Back in the day, your car was some wheels and some mechanical devices. These days, it is a computer (actually, a few computers) and some I/O devices that process gasoline into rotary motion. Computers have software. Do you own that software?

The answer has, legally, been no. However, a recent decision by the US Copyright office allows car owners to legally analyze and modify their vehicle software (with some limitations) for the next two years. After that? We’ll see.


You still can’t mess with the entertainment system (because that might allow you to copy music or movies). There are a few other prohibited systems and modifications (such as disabling emission controls, which breaks other laws).

ECUs, Ebooks, and DVDs

This is very similar to the issues surrounding electronic books and videos. When you buy a paperback book, for example, you buy the physical object but not the contents (so the lawyers say). So the fact that you have a paperback book doesn’t necessarily give you the legal right to an electronic copy, even if you scan it yourself for your own use. Sure, it might fall under fair use, for example, but then again it might not. Same for a DVD. Ripping it to watch on another device is almost certainly illegal in the US. Not that people don’t do it all the time and there’s no real way to enforce it.

So why is hacking your car becoming acceptable and hacking your DVD video isn’t? Easy. It is money. There’s a huge amount of money backing the idea that you should buy the same content over and over again for different devices. The opposite side, in the car case, is the repair business that wants in on the action of fixing or modifying systems with software. Of course, the car makers are less than thrilled and the next two years will be a battle of dollars to see who can buy enough politicians to prevail.

Poor Ham Radio

If that sounds overly cynical, just look at other similar cases. For years, the FCC declined to interfere with “private contracts” (such as homeowner association restrictive covenants) that prohibited ham radio antennas. The claim was that they had no authority to do so. When those same private contracts started interfering with people putting up satellite TV antennas, the FCC put a stop to that. There may now be some light in the darkeness for HAMs living under HOAs.

So if you’ve been hacking your car computers in the US, congratulations! You, and our balaclava-wearing friend above, are legal. For a few years, anyway. Even if it becomes against the law again, like Magic Mike, I see a lot of lawbreakers up in this house.

33 thoughts on “One Hundred Weeks Of Legal Car Hacking

  1. so everyone can tune their cars without consequences ? like here in Belgium we pay insurance fees depending on the engine’s rated power. So even if it was legal to tune your engine, you’d still be conning the insurance company ..

    1. In the uk you simply inform your insurance of the projected/ actual power increase. Im my case from 36bhp to 330bhp in my lil mini. If you increase engine capacity you inform the dvla and your road tax changes to suit. And the emissions test your car is subject to changes to suit aswell.

        1. I believe that the units in use are brake horsepower and not boiler horsepower, else that mini must have a rocket engine in it. 36 brake horsepower converts to approximately 36.5 horsepower, the unit used in th USA, and 330 brake horsepower would be about 334.6 hp. If it was 36 boiler horsepower that would be the equivalent of approximately 480.3 horsepower, and 330 boiler horsepower would be approximately 4,402.6 hp. Have fun driving that in traffic.

          If you feel that 36 brake horsepower is alot i am thankful that i do not live in your country. My first car, 1984 toyota MR2, had about 4x that much brake horsepower.

        1. Did i say it got stricter? I said it changes to suit. That is it changes to suit in as much as if i took a 2007 car and swapped in a 1997 poweryrain with paperwork to prove the emissions test the car is subject to changes to suit. As you point out it goes on which ever is older.

  2. “In the uk you simply inform your insurance of the projected/ actual power increase.” Or not in my case, insurance companies and DVLA are quite happy in their ignorance.

    Magic mike? Yet more conformation that not having a TV was a good idea.

  3. “disabling emissions”

    this is incorrect, not only can you not disable emissions, you cannot legally mess with any part of the emissions chain at all, for instance its illegal to change a cat even if meant the new cat was better, without recertification and those that think its CARB only, or that there is such a pass as “off road use only” are in for a shock if they get caught, this is a federal (USA) level law as part of the clean air act and so on.

    the emissions chain, is anything at all that can change the running of the car, so ecu, headers, o2 sensors etc. Also the smog stations that do plugs in carb states grab a checksum called a CVN from your ECU and upload it to their database, they have a list of CVNs that are certified, as far as i know nothing has been done with this yet, but it is recorded.

    of course people still do it anyway.

    1. Easy there…headers themselves don’t violate emissions laws in the US and high flow cats are legal. You can buy CARB approved full exhaust kits (headers to tips) with high flow cats.

      The issue that arises is that these are “high performance racing parts” as far a the OEM is concerned, so if you car is under warranty these mods void it. It is however illegal to void a warranty for example just changing a muffler.

      1. Parts that are approved (and not used if cats) are legal to swap out, for states that follow CARB the headers and cats need an EO or CARB test on the vehicle and the EO’s can be pulled afterwards

        Headers can change the resulting emissions output, so do have to be approved.

        But anything that changes the resulting emissions chain is illegal to swap out, or tamper with.

        Unless your car was OEM equipped by a so called “high flow” cat then there is no legal replacement for it.

        You’re only allowed to change a CAT out in certain circumstances, you can’t just replace it if you feel like it, its not legal to replace a functioning CAT

        magnusson moss basically says the warranty provider has to prove the part caused the fail the warranty request is for, not that it is just illegal to void a warranty denial, so its not quite that black and white.

        Here’s a handy list for CAT laws

        Catalytic Converter Laws

        Rules for Replacing Converters
        In 1986, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued new guidelines for the construction, efficiency and installation of aftermarket catalytic converters. All CleanAir converters listed in this catalog have been designed, tested and manufactured to meet this policy.

        CAT rules

        1. The vehicle is missing a converter
        2. A state or local inspection program has determined that the existing converter needs replacement
        3. Vehicles manufactured prior to 1996 must have more than 50,000 miles, and a legitimate need for replacement must be established and documented
        4. In cases of OBD Il-equipped vehicles (1996 and later), the O.E. manufacturer’s 8-year/80,000-mile warranty must have expired and a legitimate need for replacement must be established and documented.

        Please note that Federal law prohibits removal or replacement of a properly functioning O.E. converter.

        When replacement of the converter is appropriate (as outlined above), the E.P.A. further requires that:

        1. It be installed in the same location as the original
        2. It be the same type as the original (i.e., two-way, three-way, three-way plus air/three-way plus oxidation)
        3. It be the proper model for the vehicle application as determined and specified by the manufacturer
        4. It be properly connected to any existing air injection components on the vehicle
        5. It be installed with any other required converter for a particular application
        6. It be accompanied by a warranty information card to be completed by the installer.

        1. also i’m obviously aware a lot of people either ignore these laws, pass around misinformation and so on, but as someone who was doing the work commercially, i wanted to make sure i found out to the best i could instead of listening to the internet/customers who’ll swear blind it’s just fine to do.

          so i just called the EPA and talked to them, super nice people, then i did the process of ecu tuning and putting superchargers/headers modifications etc through CARB testing, took the various tests and so on, working with OEMs, dealers, warranties etc across the USA.

          1. Unless youre in NY, where its even stricter as of the last few years – Replacement has to be either NOS identical to what rolled out of the factory, or one of a handful of certified OEM replacements. Until that point it was anything California legal, but even at that they now have to be certified for NY as well.

            . . . Nothing like sticker shock to motivate someone who wants to keep it legal to say screw it and find a way to circumvent it.

          2. can’t reply to lurker since thread depth, but yeah everywhere is pretty much the same. has to be same type as OEM,

            A lot of people think CARB means California only, it doesn’t, a lot of states follow CARB rules, NY is one of them. and as of 2016 the EPA has adopted CARB emissions guidelines as well for new vehicles. Since LA had the worst pollution, CA gets to make it’s rulesets (sometimes)

            I’m also not trying to change peoples minds about what they believe, all i’m doing is putting up what i learnt to allow me to make educated decisions about what business/personal decisions i made when doing this work, YMMV and this is all USA centric, but some european laws are more restrictive

          3. Considering the EPA has never given a single fine or penalty to an individual who tampered with or replaced emissions systems on their own car, what you’re describing is purely theoretical. They leave enforcement up to the states for stuff at that level.

        2. Fair enough, I agree and that was my basic understanding as well; I over simplified. I have full exhaust on a 2010 Camaro SS with high flow cats and the inspectors just look to make sure there is are cats in place.

        3. Wonder what the EPA has to say about slapping high-flow CATs onto engines that were not factory equipped.
          Seems like going your summation that would also be illegal as you are putting a 3-way in place of a 0-way.

          1. you generally cannot legally change the CAT style at all, has to be OEM or OEM approved, EO’d or CARB approved for CARB BAR states (50 state legal) there are some exceptions for federally approved CATs. “high flow” to the best of my knowledge don’t really exist on OE , and arguably at all, you get cats with less cells (which is usually all a high flow/performance cat is) that is less restrictive but they don’t work as well so you risk engine lights, as well as smog fails.

            the OEM designs the CAT for the most part to flow the most and keep it within emissions, for less performance cars they do leave room on the table since they’re generally batched and cost/fuel economy/emissions is more important. If you upgrade the engines power you’re usually outside CARB/EPA anyway, though there are a few approved kits.

            its getting tighter and tighter, i think piggybacks will make a resurgence for ECU control because of different laws, and how hard it’ll get to actually “crack” the ecu, not a fan of the piggyback but it might be all we get, and it’ll still be against the rules anyway

            O2 sensors have to be in the same place as well, so no mods to location of any, pre/post O2s

            EOs can be rescinded since you can write in the technical description of why it’ll pass emissions ( usually after a slight change ) and the CARB engineers will look at the math and determine if that is likely to be true, if not they’ll make you test it, if they accept the technical reasoning they’ll often EO it, but if its determined later on that your technical explanation/maths didn’t work out in the real world or faked, they’ll rescind it. if it’d been sold after rescission you can still install or use it.

            CARB also does not allow you to advertise as “high flow” or “easy flow” or any such advertising to make them sound like they perform better than OEM, mostly because bunkum

            varies state to state for non CARB, but the EPA does still federally mandate CATs, it is complex but mostly it is , OEM style, OEM approved, not used, or rebuilt, federally approved, and/or CARB approved/EO’d. There are some exceptions for cars that no longer have CATs made for them, so there is an application/approval process for those.


  4. Well them suckers that are all corpsified in the brainpan ain’t so shiny, but that’s not the darkest timeline, what most of us won’t have the medichlorians to handle is…. MLP quotes….. they’re like the borg… I know life moves pretty fast, but there’s numerous more worthy fandoms to appreciate and plunder for their precious. Or you might wake up one day and say, “But where has all the rum gone? … and where’s my towel?”

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