Could Hackers Put an End to Smart Cars?

Computer Hacker
Getty Images/VICTOR DE SCHWANBERG

Computers have been utilized in cars for a long time. The Ignition Control Module was a computer used in the 1980s to control the flow of fuel pumping into the carburetor and improve timing. This lead way to the fuel injection systems we see in cars today. Another computer that appeared in cars in the 1980s was the On Board Diagnostics system that allowed a technician to connect to it through a plug under the dash.

This allowed for easier and more accurate diagnostics as the computer would connect to many sensors throughout the automobile. The sensors would report any problems and streamline repair diagnostics.

Computers On-board Cars Aren't Exactly New

When computer systems first appeared in cars, they were not a security risk because they were stand alone systems contained within the confines of the automobile. The only way to hack a vehicle's computer was to plug a device into the dash that would modify the vehicle’s Engine Control Unit settings. While it is not recommended, it is actually a common practice for car enthusiasts to reprogram, or flash, the Engine Control Unit for economy or performance improvements.

As people began to trust computers, automotive manufacturers started to rely on them more often. Now we have navigation systems, entertainment packages, advanced climate control, and entertainment devices.

The onboard computer has become the most important part of the modern automobile. Vehicle’s are quickly becoming a mobile computer that wirelessly communicates with the outside world.

Recent Car Hacks

In July 2015 Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek remotely hacked a 2015 Jeep Cherokee from ten miles away.

They used the vehicle's cellular connection via the entertainment system to access several critical components of the car. Once connected, they were able control the radio, turn on the windshield wipers, even turn the vehicle off. Imagine driving on the highway and all of a sudden your vehicle shuts off. Chrysler quickly released a security patch for their Uconnect software that was the entry point for the attack. While this is one example of a remote hacker controlling a vehicle, there have been several more that required physical access to the vehicle.

Samy Kamkar developed a small box that could be attached to a General Motor’s vehicle. Once attached the hacker could remotely control features of the vehicle by intercepting signals sent through the OnStar RemoteLink application. General Motors issued a patch on July 30th but it proved to be unsuccessful. This isn’t the first time the OnStar system was hacked, in 2010 a 2009 Chevy Impala was remotely hacked by researchers at the University of California and the University of Washington. According to Karl Koscher they had complete control of the car with the exception of steering. The scary part to this is that General Motors took five years to fix the hack.

The Future of Smart Cars

While most wireless communication is currently from the entertainment package, vehicles will eventually talk to other vehicles and traffic infrastructure. In 2014 the United States Department of Transportation announced that it was going to work toward enabling Vehicle to Vehicle Communication. They are also investigating Vehicle to Infrastructure Communication that will allow the vehicle to communicate to stop lights and other traffic control systems. While there are a number of benefits to both of these features, it is increasing the wireless accessibility of the vehicle. If not properly secured, this will give hackers more opportunities for accessing the vehicle.

Hackers are definitely making a disruption in the automotive industry with their research and shenanigans.

Can the industry, paired with the technology sector, prevent hackers from getting in? Looking at past history hacking has been a problem ever since computers could talk to each other. The United States Computer Emergency Readiness Team, US-CERT, will show that all major software companies have been vulnerable to hacking over and over again. If software giants like Microsoft, Apple, and Google are constantly patching their software, how will a vehicle ever be protected from the vulnerabilities that make hacking possible. While I hope there is a solution that prevents software vulnerabilities I am skeptical that anything can be impenetrable.

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