Connectivity is awesome. Connections and communication between electronic systems, both wired and wireless, have allowed us to continue to advance technology to unimaginable heights. From TVs, to the internet, to satellite communication communication between technologies enables new and advanced functionalities for users. Every telematics platform in existence is built upon this idea.
Until recently, cars have remained entirely unconnected. Off-the-grid as far as talking to other devices. On-Star changed that by building a cell-phone into the car and ever since it’s been a mad dash to add functionality that will take advantage of the cars new ability to talk to the outside world.
But with great power comes great responsibility…
The more connectivity and integration is built into any device (a car for our purposes) the more ways there are to access that device. This is a natural evolution of technology. Unfortunately those ways to access device also mean more ways for those with less than positive intentions to gain access as well.
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Washington are researching vulnerabilities in electronic vehicle controls, trying to warn automakers about potential security holes. Many new cars have Bluetooth wireless technology and built-in connections for cell phones and other devices, and those connections could be exploited. In one example, the researchers called the car’s cellular connection and uploaded malicious code using an audio file. In another test, they found out how to pair the car to a Bluetooth-enabled device, which they used to execute code.
Hacking vehicle systems started as soon as computers were introduced to vehicles (and before that if you might consider removing your headers ‘hacking’ your exhaust system), but this has already required physical access to the car. With the addition of wireless connectivity the aforementioned researchers have proven that barrier no longer exists. The article goes on to speak of some of the challenges faced in attempting this type of hack, but there is absolutely no question this will get easier as time goes on…not harder. Automotive companies will always try to close security holes, but no system can be completely locked down and still remain flexible enough to talk to other systems. As additional technologies are introduced to bring smart phone connectivity into the vehicle the frequency of these hacks will increase greatly. Just about every smartphone on the market can already be hacked to do things its not meant to do and the car wont be any exception.
Personally, I’m not terribly worried about it. I’ve dealt with technology all my life and done a fair bit of the hacking myself…and, frankly, I’m looking forward to being able to hack my next car to do what I want. It is inevitable that people will try to take control of their devices at the lowest level and they will succeed. Most will use this power for good and increase the mileage of their Prius or custom build an app for their phone to talk to their car, but someone, somewhere will create a ‘virus’ for the car. In the PC world viruses are easy to catch and difficult to get rid of, but most don’t bring your system to a crashing halt. Most are meant to steal information or processing power, not prevent users from completely using there computers. In automotive I would expect the same to hold true. Malicious code wont usually be made to send thousands of cars careening into each other. Instead it will steal personal information, flash messages on the screens, and otherwise invade your life while still allowing the car to operate safely.
On the other hand, there are those PC viruses that format your hard drive for no good reason other than the creator wanted cause destruction. This is possible in the automotive world as well, but no doubt that particular hacker would be aggressively pursued…much more so than someone crashing home computers.
By no means am I saying the sky is falling, but I do expect this type of intrusion into vehicle systems to increase over time. Just like Apple computers never had viruses until they become ubiquitous (essentially) and the same will hold true in vehicles. As the number of these systems increase, and in turn the number of people that can be reached with a particular virus increases, the automotive industry will have to deal with the same problems that PCs and smartphones have.