Self-Driving Cars: Ripe for Hacking?

After watching a video over the weekend of the new self-driving cars that Ford is working on, it got my own wheels turning a bit on how cool that was. Enter in the huge backlash of fans against the hackers who just popped out the scripts for Game of Thrones after the HBO hack, and now my wheels are turning in a whole new way. While I’d love to sit back and enjoy the scenery while my car drives me around, I have to admit that the whole concept makes me a bit nervous. Here’s why: anything can be hacked. So, should we all be worried about self-driving cars being hacked or is that just a figment of our imaginations?

When you consider that by the year 2020 there will be 200 million – yes million – cars on the road in the US, that is a lot of potential self-driving cars out there. If someone was able to hack into the systems for these cars, then you have the potential to shut down major travel around the country. For example, a group of Chinese security researchers have now been able to demonstrate – twice – how they can hack into and control a Tesla Model X just through the web and cell phone connections. The researchers were able to use a web browser to control the car’s brakes, doors, and lights. Scary right?

Even Dvir Reznik, Harman’s automotive cyber security division’s senior marketing manager, said: “There isn’t such a thing as 100% cyber-proof.” In an email to The Guardian, he continued on, stating that car companies and technology vendors, like the one he works for, are coming together to create security standards. With these standards for cyber security and safety in self-driving cars, he hopes that they can greatly reduce the way that hackers can break into a car and control it.

The majority of the auto industry believes that by automating cars, they are providing a much safer driving environment. I actually agree with this assessment, and you probably do as well, especially if you’ve ever tried to drive through a huge metroplex with thousands of distracted, late-to-work, drivers. I can easily see the benefits of this automation in the form of safety as it would mean that cars would be able to ‘speak’ to each other, know where other cars are, be able to change lanes without problems, control the car’s speed and alert the owner (or shut down completely) if there is a problem. It would also cut out the worry of drunk drivers and distracted drivers as it takes them completely out of the driver’s seat.

However, this automation is also the exact thing that could be the self-driving car’s downfall. There will always be bugs in technology, we laugh (and scream) about them every day at work. We also see them in train accidents when one train or a program controlling several trains doesn’t communicate properly. We also see bugs when cars have major electrical problems, when fuses go out, when the wrong gas is put into a tank and the list could go on forever.

So, the more technology is loaded into a car, the more entry points they give hackers. Plus, automating cars would also mean that you could then automate the updates for the car’s systems via the internet. Once that happens, there is the highway for hackers to get into anything they want. Experts in cyber security agree, such as Jon Geater from Thales Security. “As soon as you’ve made online updates available, you’ve opened up vehicles for invasion by hackers,” he said. “Time and time again, it’s been proven that once you create a system that’s intended to make cars safer, you can always trick it if you know how it works.”

Automotive engineers and technology designers are coming up against this massive wall when they are working on developing software for today’s technologically advanced cars.

Trying not to melt away in the heat of Oklahoma, MD Weems has been a writer and artist for over 20 years. Her written works over all types of gaming have been used in college level game design textbooks as well as in US Patents over virtual character design. She has worked with gaming companies all over the world and is even cool enough to have her own Korean cartoon character.