Cars: The Next Victims of Cyberattacks

The computers that make them smart also leave them vulnerable

2 min read
Cars: The Next Victims of Cyberattacks

Every year, automakers endow vehicles with more brainpower. Top of the line models regularly sport dozens of computerized control units. Why all the computer hardware? It has allowed us to turn over parts of the driving task—such as maintaining a safe distance from the car ahead of us, or parallel parking—to the cars.

But the same systems engineered to keep cars from crashing—or at least to make driving less stressful—might soon be co-opted by criminals intent on attacking a single driver or causing widespread havoc. Several research groups have independently demonstrated smart cars’ vulnerability to cyberattacks via the Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, or cellular connections meant as conduits for entertainment, information, and communication. In a September report about the emerging risks in automotive system security, security firm McAfee pointed to an incident where a disgruntled former employee at a Texas car dealership used a remote car deactivation system to simultaneously shut off the engines of 100 vehicles.

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego and the University of Washington say that in their tinkering, they hit upon a cyberattack method by which thieves could cause large groups of cars to report their vehicle identification numbers (from which it is easy to determine the cars’ years, makes, and models) and GPS coordinates. Having learned where the most prized vehicles are parked, the technique would allow criminals to issue another set of commands that remotely bypass the cars’ security systems, unlock their doors, and start their engines. A similar technique, said the researchers, could be used to listen in on a driver’s phone conversations, or worse, to disable one or multiple cars’ brakes as they travel at highway speeds.

Automakers say they have gotten the message. A Chrysler spokesman says the company is seeking the advice of security experts in order to identify its cars’ vulnerabilities. Ford says it is “working to ensure that we’ve developed [cars that are] as resistant to attack as possible.”

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We Need More Than Just Electric Vehicles

To decarbonize road transport we need to complement EVs with bikes, rail, city planning, and alternative energy

11 min read
A worker works on the frame of a car on an assembly line.

China has more EVs than any other country—but it also gets most of its electricity from coal.

VCG/Getty Images

EVs have finally come of age. The total cost of purchasing and driving one—the cost of ownership—has fallen nearly to parity with a typical gasoline-fueled car. Scientists and engineers have extended the range of EVs by cramming ever more energy into their batteries, and vehicle-charging networks have expanded in many countries. In the United States, for example, there are more than 49,000 public charging stations, and it is now possible to drive an EV from New York to California using public charging networks.

With all this, consumers and policymakers alike are hopeful that society will soon greatly reduce its carbon emissions by replacing today’s cars with electric vehicles. Indeed, adopting electric vehicles will go a long way in helping to improve environmental outcomes. But EVs come with important weaknesses, and so people shouldn’t count on them alone to do the job, even for the transportation sector.

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