By on November 15, 2013

Renault Zoe Circa January 2014

This is the Renault Zoe. It’s like most EVs on the road, with its limited range, limited power, and limited usability.

Unlike the other EVs, however, the Zoe comes with DRM attached to its battery pack. In short: If you value your ability to drive the Zoe at all, then you will submit to a rental contract with the pack’s manufacturer. Should you fail to pay the rent or your lease term expires, Renault can and will turn your Zoe into an expensive, useless paperweight by preventing the pack’s ability to be recharged, consequences be damned.

It’s only the beginning.

Ever since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act came into force in 1998, one particular section has managed to do more damage to innovation than to protect the innovators: Section 1201:

No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.

The application of Section 1201 in the past has led to actions such as: The delay in disclosing copy-protection vulnerability found in Sony’s CDs; takedown notices issued by Hewlitt-Packard to researchers for publishing a security flaw in the former’s Tru64 UNIX OS; Lexmark suing anyone who sells aftermarket refilled toner cartridges; and even displacing laws meant to deal with hacking and electronic intrusion, such as the Wiretap and Electronic Communications Privacy acts.

Regarding DRM, many a gamer has experienced their favorite games rendered unplayable because the online component — having reached its end-of-life phase and, thus, the creator no longer supports the software — can no longer be authenticated. So, imagine Zoe owners one day going to work or to visit their grandmother on her death bed when, because Renault decided to no longer support the battery pack nor verify new packs, not being able to start their car. They can’t resell the EV on the used car market, and thus, can’t make some of their $23,000 back on their purchase.

Or worse, imagine if a Zoe driver and their friends were going to a major protest — like the one that led to the Battle of Seattle, for example — only to find their government told Renault to “block” charging of the pack to hinder either their progress to the action or allow the police to “say hello,” as it were.

And of course, let’s say a Zoe owner is the target of a sociopath. They bribe a Renault employee for access to the DRM through social engineering, find “the bitch” who left them, shutdown the battery at home… you can see where this is going.

Now, imagine it happening here with the theorhetical (for now) autonomous commuter pod of 2025 your sons and daughters may end up “piloting.”

At present, Representative Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., is leading a bipartisan charge to bring about the Unlocking Technology Act, designed to limit the overzealous use of the DMCA and Section 1201 to cases where real intellectual property infringement has occurred. Should this bill become law, it would go a long way to preventing the abuses that have hindered progress elsewhere from infecting the automotive industry any further.

Photo credit: werner hillebrand-hansen/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

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39 Comments on “Section 1201 and Automotive DRM: The Future is Locked...”

  • avatar

    If you wear a tinfoil hat it renders you immune to DRM.

  • avatar

    “…and thus, cant make some of their $23,000 back on their purchase.”

    “…then you will submit to a rental contract with the packs manufacturer. Should you fail to pay the rent…

    So is it a purchase, or a rental? I would assume if you purchase the vehicle outright, they will give you the keys to the DRM in the battery.

    • 0 avatar

      from TFA:
      “When you buy a Renault Zoe, the battery isn’t included. Instead, you sign a rental contract for the battery with the car maker.”


      I suppose it’s how they keep the price down, but still.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      I think the point is that in the vast majority of transactions where IP rights are concerned, what you buy when you buy the physical thing is a license to use the IP under specified terms and conditions. To take a very simple example, even in the analog era, when you bought a vinyl record you had a right to perform (play) the copyrighted music and the copyrighted performance of the music on the record only in your home. You did not have the right, for example, to play the record through a PA system in a store, restaurant, etc.

      Just about every physical thing you buy has a lot of IP in it, patented devices, copyrighted programs and so on. So, if there are “strings attached” to a car buyer’s right to use the IP in the car — say the patented battery pack — then, theoretically, the owner of those rights (NOT the owner of the car) could “pull the string” and shut the car down.

      The problem with this scenario is who would buy a car with those kinds of strings attached to any of the IP? And it’s not hard to imagine a federal regulatory body, like the Federal Trade Commission prohibiting such a practice as “unfair and deceptive” to consumers since it is contrary to the consumer’s ordinary expectations when she buys a car. I don’t see the “locked cell phone” as being analogous to this situation. The carrier highly subsidizes the consumer’s purchase of a cell phone, with the expectation that the consumer will use that phone for its useful life on that carrier’s system, generating revenue. If the carrier, through one means or another, is prohibited from selling a “locked” cell phone, then it will simply reduce or eliminate the subsidy, requiring the consumer to pay more for it.

      • 0 avatar

        In Europe, Renault has separated the battery leases from the car payment, in an effort to make the vehicle prices more competitive. It’s yet another effort to use financing terms to address what is ultimately an excessively high price.

        This gimmick…er, approach is something that should be offputting to third-party auto lenders, as the value of their collateral is severely compromised in the event that the battery payments aren’t made.

    • 0 avatar

      EV1 part deux?

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Assuming that EV owners are techies, programmers, engineers, etc, this is a sure fire way to turn off your core of potential customers. However, I’m sure the corporate lawyers and other ilk love this. this will be so hacked.

  • avatar

    “an expensive, useless paperweight”

    Sounds like a decent description of Renaults in general.

  • avatar

    Planned obsolescence –> forced obsolescence

    It’s the perfect business model. Make the thing people payed for no longer work, thus forcing them to buy a new one.

    All about the Benjamins, baby.

  • avatar

    Like to see the system. It’s attached to the battery pack, but how? At the core a battery will need two leads into it. Can’t imagine it be impossible to bypass it.

    You shouldn’t have to nessecarily attach any charging device to the charging port. I would think you could go off the motor leads too. I’d have to see some kind of schematic.

    • 0 avatar

      The problem is that charging modern advanced batteries isn’t just a matter of connecting them to a current source. They are easily damaged by excessive charging rates, to name just one problem. Modern chargers are microprocessor controlled and monitor charge rate, voltage and temperature and control charging current based upon a map of those and other factors. Bottom line? Not so easy…

  • avatar

    I guess jailbreaking cars will become a thing.

    • 0 avatar

      For sale: 2015 unlocked Renault Zoe.

    • 0 avatar

      What will happen is, you must have a test to prove the validity and current-status of your DRM on your vehicle BEFORE you can register it and get plates.

      :( 1984 already.

    • 0 avatar

      Actually, it could be considered theft. You bought the car, you only rent the battery. If you can BUY a replacement battery, or convert to an IC drivetrain, you can tell the battery company you won’t rent anymore and to come and get their battery, or maybe leave it on the sidewalk in front of the Nissan dealer (not recommended).

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    Representative Zoe Lofgren
    Renault Zoe


  • avatar

    FYI, GM is planning on implementing “Cybersecurity” in all their electronic modules in the next couple of years. This involves encrypting software in flash to make tampering extremely difficult (among other things).

    I expect this to cause major headaches for the aftermarket (and GM is happy to do so).

    • 0 avatar

      Automakers have had varying levels of “encryption” on their control modules for a long time. Whatever can be encrypted can be decrypted by the aftermarket, all it takes is time and willing customers.

      Every time we hear “it’s uncrackable”, then within a year the handheld tuners have hardware and software out there to mess with it. One that comes to mind is when Chrysler relesed the latest LX/LD cars with the PowerNet architecture.

      The next step in automotive module programming security will be automatic checking of hardware and software part numbers with the automaker database whenever the vehicle is connected to diagnostic equipment at the dealer. Even at that point, modders could likely still get away with “flashing it back”. You can look at the flash counter for clues to see if it’s been f*cked with, but it’s not always proof.

  • avatar
    Stuck in DC traffic

    People have no problem buying movies, music and books that never leave the cloud for personal ownership. Meaning they never have the physical media and they happily click agree to the DRM to link them to the cloud for the media. What happens if Barnes and Nobel goes under? Your digital book shelf is gone. But the consumer has not rebelled against this so I don’t see them doing so for the car battery. I see the financing companies rebelling against this idea. Your financier doesn’t pay the battery rent and the car gets bricked would make the note holder not to happy. Maybe the car of tomorrow will be like a mortgage where taxes, and battery rent are part of the payment?

  • avatar

    One key factoid that is left out of the article, but may not be known to the American readers is that battery leases are common in Europe. You buy the car + lease the battery pack, hedging the risk that your battery pack’s life goes down the toilet and pulls your resale value with it. I would imagine Renault gives you the option to buy the pack instead.

    DRM is merely an enabler for battery leases. What’s the alternative if you stop paying? Towing the car? Ripping out the battery pack? How is that any better?

    As far as the battery being obsoleted- how is that different from any other part? The argument that OEMs want to design in obsolescence is a falacy. It is in their best interest to protect residual values as it counts into the overall cost of ownership. Maybe Land Rover can get away with it, but an economy hatch needs a strong value proposition.

    • 0 avatar

      “As far as the battery being obsoleted- how is that different from any other part?”

      We don’t separately lease engines clutches, alternators, brake rotors or master cylinders.

      You’re right, the battery isn’t different from any other part. And we know better than to lease those parts. Leasing is strictly for the OEM’s benefit, not the customer’s.

      • 0 avatar

        Battery leases have actually been a customer-driven phenomenon in Europe to hedge against battery life anxiety, which is interesting considering market testing in the US shows a strong preference for owning rather than leasing batteries (but trending towards leasing).
        IF battery footprints were standardized, a lease would make complete sense to me. I currently lease my Volt, hedging against the risk of my residual value plummeting when Volt 2 comes out with a much longer range. Commoditization and technical advancements in batteries are far out-pacing the rest of the vehicle tech, and the lifespan of batteries is un-proven. De-coupling makes sense if there is some expectation that there will be replacement options in the future.
        Ironically the rest of an EV makes for an ideal car to purchase with greatly reduced maintenance needs. In my case with the Volt, I’m leasing the whole car but only because of the battery. If the battery technology were more mature, I’d be much more likely to buy the car.

  • avatar

    I’m far more worried about black boxes that are my property ratting me out than any leased battery issues. You could simply choose not to buy a car with a battery lease. With the electronic rat, you have no choice, other than locating it ahead of time and should you have an accident, remove if for destruction and leave a middle finger sticker in it’s place for the “authorities”

  • avatar

    “Its like most EVs on the road, with its limited range, limited power, and limited usability”… This classic leading statement tells me we are headed for an opinion piece and my conclusion is that this is and a misleading one at that.
    I don’t care for this DRM nonsense at all but inaccurately confusing Renault and an independent battery manufacturer / leasing company is very misleading. It’s a bit like blaming your dishwasher brand for a power cut.
    Two things, who says you can’t put another battery from another company in the car and, you could just buy the effing thing if you dislike DRM… Look, lease, you DONT own it, buy, you do. Don’t confuse these concepts.
    Anyway this car is very unlikely to make it to the US market so this has little relevance here.
    If the car does make it (as a Mitsubishi???) hopefully some bright entrepreneur will sell an “unlocked” or just sell you a battery.

  • avatar

    This is nothing more than Lo Jack for the 21st century just like OnStar. Here’s another question, how long will it be before mfgs in the US start deactivating something on your conventional car if you miss a payment or two? (unless this is already done and I’m just unaware).

    • 0 avatar

      A better question is, how long before entrepreneurs break these down and offer reflashing or replacements of other nanny components besides the ECU? There looks to be an increasing amount of money to be made bypassing or neutralizing OEM “features”.

      • 0 avatar

        In my experience, there is no such thing as an unbreakable DRM. There may be, but I have not seen it. Living outside the US, people here do not worry about the law and DRM. I am sure that someone will crack this if it comes to pass. Too much brain power available to put on the problem, for it to hold up.

      • 0 avatar

        Good question Lorenzo.

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