The software that allowed Volkswagen diesel cars to cheat on emissions tests was not found by government regulators.
Instead, its effects were discovered by researchers at West Virginia University, working with the International Council on Clean Transportation.
Confronted with on-road emission levels far higher than its test results, VW finally admitted to the EPA that it had programmed its software to route around emission controls in real-world use.
But if carmakers have their way, inspecting and analyzing the software that controls such functions could become even more difficult than it is today.
Since May, a debate has been playing out regarding whether the software used to control myriad vehicle functions should be freely accessible, or whether it is protected by copyright law.
The 1998 Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) was drafted to protect copyrighted materials like movies from being ripped off--but for the past five months, carmakers have been lobbying to extend the law's scope to include all software in their vehicles, according to Autoblog.
2015 Volkswagen Passat TDI
This might prevent researchers from digging into software of the kind that let VW cheat, and it could also make it harder for individual owners to work on their cars.
The DMCA contains provisions that ensure the public may continue to make fair use of copyrighted materials.
Every three years, the U.S. Copyright Office determines whether exemptions are needed to protect activities considered fair use.
More than two dozen exemptions have been proposed this year, and about a half dozen of those reportedly apply to the car industry.
Automakers have argued that the electronic systems that run cars have become too complex, and thus shouldn't be tampered with.
Interestingly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)--which only became aware of the VW "cheat" software after independent researchers analyzed it--opposes an exemption that would protect similar research.
2015 Volkswagen Passat TDI
In comments filed with the Copyright Office, the EPA said it is worried exemptions would open the door primarily for modifications meant to increase performance or fuel economy--at the expense of emissions.
The exemptions would allow for modifications that could "slow or reverse gains made under the Clean Air Act," a July 17 EPA letter (via Wired) to the Copyright Office stated.
However, the agency did not acknowledge that individual owners who modify their cars would still have to adhere to the same emissions standards.
A DMCA exemption would grant independent entities access to software--not a free pass to ignore any other standards or regulations that apply to new vehicles sold in the U.S.
The Copyright Office will issue a final decision on automotive-software DMCA exemptions by the end of this month.