Lately, everyone has been talking about high-tech cars. The idea of the future becoming the now is too appealing to ignore. In a world of constant busyness, or perceived busyness, gaining extra time in one’s day is invaluable.

That’s why wireless car connectivity sounds so great from the start. Connect a car wirelessly to a network and use an onboard touchscreen for apps, emergencies, navigation and media. The focus is on saving time and gaining efficiency as drivers can access information that might typically reside only on their phones or devices. From there, carmakers hope to further improve safety, as if cars can communicate with each other wirelessly, they can avoid collisions and alert drivers to obstructions. All of this can greatly reduce accidents and save lives. Furthermore, this technology is the basis for self-driving cars, as eventually the plan is for vehicles to safely control the road and communicate with each other without a need for drivers.

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While these connected vehicle telematics offer a lot of advantages in our constantly communicating world; there is also the increased chance of vulnerability.  

Wireless cars are connected through various telecommunication networks and yet that also allows for security holes, enabling hackers to get into the system.

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As early as 2010, car hacks occurred thanks to newly implemented Internet-connected vehicle devices. Texas Auto Center received many panicked phone calls about cars whose horns were obnoxiously going off in the middle of the night and whose engines were refusing to start in the morning. What was the deal? The Internet-connected device behind the dashboard, installed to remind drivers of oil changes and repairs, had a hacked computer system.  

More recently, car hacks have escalated to an alarming level. Last July, a Jeep Cherokee was used for a demonstration in which two hackers accessed the vehicle’s UConnect network through the Internet and began to modify the controls for the car’s air conditioner, wipers and radio. Soon after, they were able to access the car’s brakes and disable transmission. The driver, who had consented to the study, ended up stopping the car in a ditch. While the hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek presented their findings at the Black Hat conference and gave prior notice to the car manufacturers to fix the security issue—they illustrated just how serious car hacking can be. 
Other web security hackers also hacked the Tesla S model car, and were able to remotely disable the engine, operate vehicle brakes, unlock the car and access the entertainment system. In this case, physical access to the car was needed prior to remote access. Similar scenarios have occurred through a vehicle's OnStar system. Additionally, other stories describe security scares with devices that can be hidden on the car's exterior to receive rolling codes from the keyless remote to later unlock the vehicle door. These hackings involved dongles, a commonly used telematics device installed by insurers onto car dashboards to track driving habits, that had security holes. Researchers at the University of California at San Diego, were able to craft SMS messages to send to the dongle on a Corvette, eventually enabling and disabling the brakes and playing with the wipers.
While all of these incidents led to prompt security fixes, the unease is still present for many car owners as the question remains: are there other security vulnerabilities out there? If these hackers were able to get into the car’s system remotely, without any physical access to the vehicle, then what else could happen? There are a lot of possibilities, and they aren’t good. All of these beg the question of cybersecurity and bring up the issue of standardization. 

Where Are We Headed?

The Federal Trade Commission may need to create common security standards to guard against the potential dangers of car hacking. As more and more vehicles become high-tech, do we really want to compromise public safety?

While the Jeep Cherokee hack was partly a planned demonstration, in the sense that the driver agreed, there are still a lot of potential dangers for car hacking. Not all car hacks will be demonstrations. No one should be able to externally access a car’s brakes or transmission, as even accessing the wipers and radio is dangerous. If physical access to the car isn’t needed, there’s considerable more reason for concern. Currently, people seem to be assured by the fact that not all manufacturer car models work the same and it can take a long time of trial and error to successfully hack a vehicle.

That said, any car with a vehicle telematics device, infotainment system, or any type of Internet-connected software can be hacked because that is simply the nature of computers. In order for all high-tech cars to be safe, dealers will need to make updates frequently. If hackers are able to reach vehicles through wireless networks, then imagine what will happen next with driverless cars? There’s a need for regulation and implemented standards to keep drivers safe against security invasions so that they can be both connected and protected.  

So, where’s the future headed? Expect to hear more and more about cybersecurity. These hacker demonstrations are putting the pressure on car manufacturers but they may not be able to deal with the issue on their own. The government is continually working to form cybersecurity policies and the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) is now looking into security standards for telematics devices. As of the new year, several automakers signed on to collaborate with each other and the U.S. government to prevent these types of connected car hacks. A bill recently introduced to the Senate would require the NHTSA and the FTC to set security standards for software, testing by analysts and onboard systems to detect any malicious behavior. Called the Security and Privacy in Your Car Act or SPY for short, the act could ignite a much-needed conversation about car cybersecurity.

Car connectivity has a lot of positive attributions but there are some risks to be aware of. Hopefully, as more technology is integrated into vehicles, more security and standardization will occur. Until then, we’ll have to figure out how to submit auto insurance claims based on car hacks.

Photo Credits: Wikipedia