Should we be worried about the hackable car?


Following a number of recent incidents, security researchers are becoming increasingly concerned about the security of our increasingly connected vehicles.

The prospect of your family car suddenly taking on a mind of its own and propelling you helplessly into oncoming traffic is a terrifying one.

And while it might seem a somewhat irrational fear, security researchers are in fact becoming increasingly concerned that the rise of the connected vehicle and driverless technology could leave the next generation of vehicles vulnerable to malicious attacks by hackers and viruses.

This concern has been fuelled by a number of cases involving existing vehicles.

Just last week Jaguar Land Rover announced that is was recalling 65,0000 Range Rover vehicles after a software glitch caused keyless vehicles to spontaneously unlock themselves. One driver even reported that the door flew open while the car was moving. 

The company, which has issued a software patch to address the problem, reportedly feared that sophisticated thieves armed with simple hacking devices could exploit the glitch.

A similar issue was uncovered earlier this year on BMW, Mini and Rolls Royce vehicles equipped with so-called Connected Drive technology, a web-enabled driver assistance system developed by BMW. During tests, researchers were able to hack into vehicles operating this system and open doors and windows.

Even more dramatically, Chrysler was recently prompted to issue a security patch following a report in Wired describing how researchers remotely hacked into a moving Jeep Cherokee, activated its windscreen wipers, tinkered with its air conditioning, and even shut down the transmission.

It’s unsettling stuff, and won’t do much to reassure the many drivers who are wary about the growing use of driverless systems. What’s more, with connected car technology still, relatively speaking, in its infancy, it’s an issue that’s only likely to become more of a priority for automotive manufacturers, and transport legislators.

Indeed, the US government is already in the process of rolling out legislation that will compel manufacturers to work harder to protect car from hackers, whilst here in the UK the Department For Transport (DFT) is also said to be drafting new regulations.

We shouldn’t perhaps be too alarmed. The fact that these widely reported glitches have been uncovered by security experts rather than criminals is perhaps a sign that industry is on top of the issue. And it’s worth emphasising that the inherent usefulness of connected vehicle technology far outweighs the risks. Indeed, deployed correctly, these systems will help to remove human error and make driving a safer and more efficient process (if not a little dull, once the frisson of new technology has worn off).

But recent reports are a reminder that the more connected we become – on the roads, and in our homes and factories  – and the more dependent we become on back-end systems, the more vulnerable we are to malicious attacks. 

And this is an issue that all areas of industry, not just the automotive sector, will need to take increasingly seriously in the months and years ahead.