April 13, 2024

NYT On "Hacking" Car Engines

In today’s New York Times, Jim Motavalli writes about people who tinker with, or replace, the software controlling their car engines. Some people do this to improve engine power or fuel efficiency, and some do it out of curiosity.

In a now-standard abuse of terminology, the article labels this as “hacking”. Worse yet is this sentence: “Perhaps inevitably, the hacker culture has also produced automotive pirates who buy legitimate chips from makers then copy the programming onto blank chips, selling the results at sharp discounts.” There you have it: tinkering is “hacking”, and “hacking” leads to copyright infringement, “perhaps inevitably”.

Sadly, the article misses a much more obvious link to the time-honored American tradition of automotive tinkering.


  1. New Hacking Blog

    Ed Felten writes about the Freedom to Tinker, “the right of technologists and citizens to tinker with technological devices.” Anyone who has ever pulled something apart and tried, successfully or not, to put it back together understands the freedom Fel…

  2. This post is especially funny because Jon Erickson’s book Hacking singles you out as the person who definitively broke any distinction between “hacking” and “cracking”, because your SDMI work was clearly harmless hacking, but it also potentially broke the law.

  3. This sort of thing has been going on since the early 1980s. Nothing new here. I used to work at Delco Electronics in Kokomo, and sometimes the creators of these products were the engineers who wanted a little more oomph. There would be at least 2 versions of these chips: the one that met emission and fuel economy standards, and the one that didn’t care about those standards.

  4. Those who are fighting to reclaim the word “hacker” would generally endorse its usage for someone who messes with his car engine in order to boost performance. The problem is that the word carries the connations of illegal or at least disreputable activity. It sounds like, in this case, it’s a valid carry-over, in that the activity is “hacking” in both senses: not only tinkering with the guts of the car in a knowledgeable way, but also breaking the law.

    The real problem is that hackers (in the traditional “good” sense) often do lack a sense of where to stop and end up crossing the line. If so, any attempt to substitute another word for the good use of “hacker” will fail, as it will inevitably become tainted by hackers who don’t know when to stop.

  5. I’m looking forward (not) to the first DMCA case against someone who decided to modify their car.

  6. What a missed opportunity:


    In 1905, Billy Murray, a very popular singer of the time, recorded the
    first known song about a car, “In My Merry Oldsmobile.” It hit the charts
    on October 14th, eventually making it to the top spot, where it remained
    for seven weeks. Over the years, songs about cars, and car racing in
    particular, continued, as America’s love for the automobile increased.
    During the thirties and forties, automobile clubs became popular among the
    nation’s teenagers. Many of the young men in these organizations began
    modifying their cars, either to make them go faster or look different, and
    sometimes both. These machines became known as “hot rods.” They inspired
    not only a magazine (“Hot Rod”, which was first published in 1947), but
    a song titled “Hot Rod Race”, variations of which continue to be recorded
    to this very day.