Today’s new cars are more tech laden – and tech dependent – than ever before. Even economy level models of various car model lines are equipped with things like GPS navigation and basic wifi connectivity. And to most of us, this is all a wonderful thing. But there are some who are concerned that drivers face a new threat thanks to all of this – that their car’s systems could be compromised by a hacker or infected by a malicious virus, much in the way that a standard home computer, and increasingly a mobile device, can.
Is Car Hacking Real or Just a Crazy Theory?
None other than the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration admits that there have been cases documented in which a car system were maliciously accessed and compromised, but have yet to say how many. The issue was one of its principal arguments against self driving cars in their report on that issue in May 2013 though and so far the position on the issue hasn’t changed too much as even more tech is being added to vehicles all the time.
And in the world of academia, researchers proved as long ago as 2010 that hacking was certainly possible and in the case of some vehicles it was actually quite easy. Scientists from Washington University and the University of California at San Diego tapped into the electronic control mode – aka the ECM – which interacts with most of a car’s functional systems, including the engine, transmission, traction control and braking systems.
After having done so they were able to adjust the car’s combustion rates and, in some cases, completely disable the engine. They also found it was possible to disable the brakes and override any automatic cutouts to keep the car running sans brakes. In some cases they could go the full monty – jam the horn, lock the doors and disable the automatic safety unlocking mechanism and shut the engine off in seconds. And all of this was six years ago now.
What is Being Done to Stop the Threat?
Before you give up driving your car for fear that it will turn into some kind of venomous KITT the next time you drive to work, it should be noted that the recorded instances of car hacking are limited, and most involve the infection of the infotainment systems thanks to a virus introduced via a car’s smartphone connectivity feature. There have also been some cases discovered in which less than scrupulous car dealers have hacked a car’s odometer in the 21st century version of ‘turning the clock back’ to reduce the number of miles on an odometer but that is something of a different issue.
No injuries or deaths have been reported officially – there is a rumor among conspiracy theory types that the fiery car crash that killed Michael Hastings, an LA journalist possibly working on the Jill Kelley story, was the result of a car hack but there is no real evidence of that – but that does not mean that car manufacturers and tech suppliers are not aware of the threat and are working towards creating the kinds of firewalls that you add to your own PC at home to stop it.
One company – Robert Bosch GmbH – better known as the Bosch Engineering Company to motorists, already has their security division Etas GmbH working hard on a solution. They already have a software solution – Escrypt GmbH – that acts as a firewall and according to the company’s director of operations in Japan, where the software was developed, VP Wolfgang Sienel thas stated they already have some Tier 1 car manufacturers that are active clients, although he is not at liberty to say just who that might be.
So how real is the threat of car hacking? Even Etas GmbH, who have a product to sell, admit it is more of a nuisance issue right now more than anything else, but the potential for harm is there, which is why the NHTSA have set up a special new division to examine the issue and a number of others, including car manufacturers, are doing the same.