There is a whole lot more to today’s cars and trucks than simply twisting a key and pressing the gas pedal to get going. Today’s modern vehicle is as much a rolling laptop as it is a conveyance for getting from Point A to Point B.
Think about it: you punch in directions via an onboard navigation system, sync your smartphone, and rely on a myriad of driving controls that are operated by electronic connections. A recent report published by AOL Autos, and titled “The Scary Truth of How Terrorists Could Crash Your Car,” takes a look at the threats posed by the prevalence of software in automobiles.
But what exactly would someone gain from hacking into a vehicle? The article’s author, Pete Bigelow, says the reasons could range from simple car theft, to high level industrial espionage, and even a cyber-attack on multiple vehicles as they’re being driven.
“For a bad guy, there are a lot of motives,” explains Bigelow. “In hacking a single car, their motives could range from something simple like stealing it to something more complex, like eavesdropping on a conversation between executives of a high-ranking company through infotainment software.”
“In hacking into many cars at once, the motives could be more harmful, anything from stealing data, such as credit-card numbers stored in our iPhones, to a mass-scale cyber-attack that results in hundreds of accidents at the same time.”
Bigelow says the current threat is “more consumer-related,” and that car thieves are already using wireless software to unlock doors and gain access to vehicles. “In the not-too-distant future, the threat becomes more safety-related,” he warns.
“Already, in 2010 and 2011, researchers have found ways to hack into single cars and compromise safety-critical systems. They’ve been able to brake cars and turn the engines on and off. When wireless is more involved, the risks multiply.”
“Researchers at the University of Michigan have an ongoing study that’s trying to keep 3,000 cars apart. What happens when a cyber-terrorist compromises the software behind this wireless technology and instead of wanting to keep the cars apart, wants to crash them together? That’s a worst-case scenario.”
Bigelow says automobile manufacturers are well aware of the problem, though they’re rarely open to talking about preventative measures they employ. “Most [auto companies] won’t talk about the specifics of their deterrent systems, because it’s such a sensitive issue.”
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently established a task force to combat the threat that hackers could pose to automobiles. Yet the current complexity of vehicles, not to mention cutting-edge work being done in the field of self-driving cars, only makes the task of keeping cars immune to cyber-terrorism that much harder.
“Software is entwined with our cars,” says Bigelow. “We typically think of it as most involved with our infotainment systems, but software is really involved in engine performance, brakes, everything. And anything with software is potentially vulnerable. It’s hard to say what can be done to prevent it.”