I had dinner the other night with an old high school mentor. He asked me over his tomato soup whether modern cars could be hacked.
“Well, sure,” I supposed. “I can’t see why anyone would want to, though.”
Then, of course, not more than 72 hours later after I gave that fateful response, I read that two papers, one from University of Washington and the other University of California, San Diego, both detailing the potential for dangerous vehicular hacking, by way of Salon.
This risk has gathered so much attention that even counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke hypothesized that the recent death of investigative reporter Michael Hastings on June 18 was “consistent with a car cyber attack.”
What could a cyber automotive attack look like? Modern cars are run by dozens of linked computer systems. Take an Infiniti for example: it’s gone so far as to develop a production-ready steer by wire system that removes the mechanical linkage from the steering wheel to the mechanical steering rack altogether. Meaning, when the driver turns the wheel, they aren’t simply turning a gear that move the wheels. Instead, sensors read steering wheel position and transfer that info to the electronically controlled steering rack. It’s trick and adjustable, but what happens if someone else gains control of it while you are driving?
Many modern cars are equipped with their own cellular systems – like those fitted with GM’s OnStar – or even with wi-fi, like some new Audis and Mercedes. These systems, too, could be easily compromised, giving hackers remote access to your vehicle.
So should a hacker get remote access to your vehicle’s onboard computers, they could do anything from disabling the brake pedal sensor (no brakes!), use traction control to lock up a single wheel, disable the engine, control the electronic steering – or even put the engine at full-throttle.
This latest report also comes on the heels of a story wherein automotive thieves baffled police by somehow remotely unlocking cars and burglarizing them.
As much as we love modern high-tech cars, this just feels like just one more reason why we should all be driving vehicles where the techno centerpiece is an 8-track player.