Self-driving cars and cybersecurity: What are the risks of car hacking?

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Can hackers get into the driver’s seat in autonomous vehicles? The short answer here is a resounding "Yes!" Just last year, researchers/hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek exploited a security issue with the mobile Wi-Fi system available in some Fiat-Chrysler products: They demonstrated they could use a laptop to take control of key vehicle systems in a Jeep Cherokee. Not only were they able to change the audio volume, adjust the air conditioning, and turn on the windshield wipers, they gained control over the transmission -- bringing the vehicle to a stop on the highway.

Luckily, it was all part of a pre-planned demonstration with a writer for Wired magazine, who was driving the car. The hacking part, however, was entirely real. The automaker had to recall 1.4 million vehicles as a result. It also was a wake-up call for both the auto industry and the government, which have teamed up with technology companies to start taking automotive cybersecurity more seriously going forward. They'll have to, too, to be ready for the predicted shift to self-driving vehicles.

Many experts believe that self-driving, or autonomous, vehicles will be ready for prime time around 2020, and that when the tipping point comes, it will happen quickly. The benefits, especially in terms of driver safety, are simply too great to ignore. Think of the lives saved from drunk and distracted drivers alone. Even when humans are at their best, computers have faster reaction times. That means millions of driverless cars are likely to be taking to the road in a few years, providing millions of targets for hackers.

While the auto industry will have that much more time to develop new security measures, hacking will still very likely be a threat to take seriously: Think of how many data breaches are still being reported today by companies and organizations that have had huge head starts in developing anti-hacking strategies.

But cyber-attacks on autonomous vehicles would put human lives at immediate risk in a way most other hacks don't (think of the Jeep Cherokee at a dead stop on the highway), as well as in the traditional scenario of stealing personal information. For example, consider how passengers in self-driving vehicles will be spending their travel time. Many will no doubt be online watching movies or TV, or working, but some also will be shopping, banking and otherwise transferring potentially sensitive data through a potentially hackable wireless connection.

Further, that data could end up including medical and health information about passengers. Some automakers already have been testing sensor arrays that can monitor drivers' vital signs and physical reactions to warn about drowsiness, low blood sugar and the like. There wouldn't be the same worry about specific driver health issues with autonomous vehicles, but the possibility of monitoring passengers for medical conditions is a real one -- and another valid concern for automotive cybersecurity.

The vulnerabilities of self-driving cars also extend far beyond the risk to individual vehicles and their passengers. In order for autonomous vehicles to reach their technological potential, they'll also have to feature high levels of connectivity with each other. The idea will be to leverage vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications so that, for example, if one car is in an accident, it can alert vehicles well behind it so they can take action sooner. In early analysis from the U.S. Department of Transportation, it was estimated that implementing V2V technology across the full national vehicle fleet could save 780 to 1,080 lives each year and prevent 400,000 to 600,000 crashes. However, in the hands of hackers -- or terrorists -- that same technology could be used to cause widespread fatalities to passengers, to turn those vehicles into self-propelled weapons for use against others, and to disrupt a significant chunk of our country's travel capabilities.

So while self-driving cars seem to be our inevitable future, we should prepare for them to be driving new cybersecurity concerns as well.

Image Credit:   MP_P / Shutterstock

Charles Krome is a Motor City native and writer for CARFAX. He enjoys staying on top of the latest car trends and sharing tips to keep drivers savvy and safe.

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