OEMs threaten development of hi-tech parts
San Diego—As a developer of software-driven aftermarket parts, Chris Blalock says that today’s vehicles are similar to supercomputers, manufactured with cutting-edge technology incorporated into complex components that offer various functions and features. From an aftermarket perspective, however, how replacement components and software from each industry are created and introduced into the marketplace couldn’t be more different.
“Steps need to be taken in the aftermarket to mirror what the computer industry has accomplished,” said Blalock, product development and management — Automotive Aftermarket, Dorman Products, who gave a presentation, “Embedded Software and the Aftermarket,” at the recent CAWA Summer Educational Forum in San Diego.
“The team that I work with every day faces the challenge of reverse engineering and designing parts to keep the aftermarket healthy.”
He explained that when a consumer purchases a computer, they do so with a preference for an operating system and what its software will accomplish, and that the necessary software can be reloaded in the event of a hardware failure or system crash. “However, when it comes to buying a car, consumers don’t consider the ‘operating system’ within the vehicle or the ‘suite of applications’ that run on it for specific functions as not being equally available.”
Vehicle owners don’t realize they don’t have the same rights to a vehicle’s software as they do with their computers, which prevents the aftermarket from reloading vehicle software that drives its “hardware,” Blalock said.
“The aftermarket needs the ability to reload the software that was purchased. What would the reaction be if software companies required buying the software again or, as in our industry’s case today, pay a ‘reload’ fee? When I bought my car, for example, I owned it — not pieces of it. While we might license its software, there’s the expectation that we have the freedom to do what it takes to repair the vehicle and to take it to the service provider of our choice.”
From a parts installer perspective, it will be challenging, if not prohibitive, to repair a vehicle without the necessary part software, which will result in lost business and opportunities, he said. “When it comes to reflashing, shops will have to walk away from the service completely because it will go directly to the dealerships.
“The aftermarket needs to lobby to allow the independent automotive repair segment to mirror what the personal computer industry has accomplished.”
Proliferation of complex modules
To illustrate how vehicle technology has advanced in regard to modules, Blalock compared the network schematics of a 2000 Chevy Tahoe and a 2015 model year, which feature nine modules and 70 modules, respectively.
The expansion of modules over this time period was driven by fuel economy, emissions requirements, safety, driver convenience and infotainment, he said. “And, keep in mind, modules and communication challenges haven’t fully realized the needs and concerns of cyber-security, safety and autonomous vehicles. The exponential growth in modules will continue.”
Blalock added that the 2000 model year Tahoe’s modules worked on one CAN network, while the 2015 model features at least two CAN networks (low speed and high speed) and various sub-networks, where modules are solely communicating between each other.
The aftermarket’s challenge in reverse engineering
For cyber-security concerns, the OEMs will soon isolate the CAN, which is presently accessible through the OBDII port, then encrypt it, further complicating software accessibility for the aftermarket, from parts manufacturers to installers, he said.
“The OEMs are attempting to limit the aftermarket’s access to important computer code. They’re not just trying to guard the OBDII port, they’re isolating it, and the OEMs are trying to use the Digital Millenium Copyright Act to keep us out.”
The aftermarket, however, has no interest in replicating OEM code, Blalock said, which would be an infringement on intellectual property, but it is seeking the right to reverse engineer the software.
“We need to lobby for the right to access the information for the purposes of reverse engineering so that the aftermarket has as an alternative part to offer the consumer, rather than forcing them back to the dealer. If we know what to ask for, then we can articulately lobby for legislation that will protect our rights. We simply want to know a part’s function and features in the interest of alternative parts and driver safety. We have no interest in schematics, copying code and intellectual property — just tell us what the part does.”
What happens if OEMs get their way?
If OEMs succeed in blocking out access to information for parts development, consumers will be denied an aftermarket repair solution that is both convenient and economical, Blalock said. They will also be denied innovation, from streamlining repairs to developing more advanced modules with increased capabilities.
“If we know a part’s function, aftermarket developers can create their own part design that will satisfy its designed functions and features,” he said. “It will meet those needs and, because of time and field experience that the part has, it will likely be an improved product at a better cost.
“The car owner should have a choice and we can supply that choice.”