The threat of car hacking – do people need to worry?

In the most recent instalment of the Fast and Furious franchise, The Fate of the Furious, viewers can see hundreds of cars in New York City hacked. They are remotely driven, causing a massive, explosive pile up. Cars were even raining down on the street below by driving out of a multi-storey car park.

Fast and Furious obviously play fast and loose with the rules of the reality, but could an event like that actually occur?

Modern cars rely on computers for almost all aspects of driving and functionality including steering, braking, climate control and so much more. In fact, it has been found that the average modern premium car contains over 100 million lines of code.

>See also: The future of driverless cars and data security

To put that into perspective – that is more lines of code than are in a Boeing 787 passenger place or an F-35 fighter jet. With an increased reliance on computers, there is a perceived increase in the threat of hacking due to the old adage that the more lines of code there are, the more software bugs there are and therefore the more risk there is.

The truth

A senior writer for Wired magazine wrote a piece back in 2015 in which he told the story of how hackers had remotely taken control of his Jeep. Wired also released a video showing exactly what happened. Wired reported that the hackers had the ability to disable the brakes, kill the engine at the low speeds, mess with the GPS system and affect the infotainment system. This all sounds rather scary.

However, hold on a moment. Scientific American reports that the hackers involved in the Wired report owned the Jeep and had worked for more than a year trying to hack it. On many of the other stories of cars being hacked and controlled remotely, the hackers involved have taken more than a year to succeed in their task.

>See also: The inevitable road to the autonomous car: are they safe?

In fact, Scientific American reported that the hackers were actually researchers who find the weaknesses in cars in order for them to be plugged (ethical hacking). The idea of your car being remotely controlled on a whim as is shown in films and TV shows appears to have been debunked, but that doesn’t mean your car is not still under threat from being the victim of hackers.

What is the threat?

The threat is that your car will be stolen manually through the use of hacking tools. For example, as discussed by the BVRLA Fleet Technology White Paper, the possibility of hackers using signal jammers to jam the signal from your electronic key, preventing you from locking your car. This could lead to the hacker getting inside your car.

Once they are inside your car, they can plug programming gadgets into your car’s diagnostic ports and program a blank key fob to match your car. This allows the hacker to drive away with your car.

>See also: How driverless cars create a whole new world for insurers

In terms of taking control of your car, it is theoretically possible to disable immobilisers from afar or by shining a laser pointer at the autonomous car’s radar system, which tricks it into thinking there is an obstacle ahead.

These theoretical threats are used by hackers to blackmail businesses rather than using genuine practical threats. In fact, there has been no reported incident of that happening beyond experimental situations such as with Wired, where researchers have spent over a year working on a specific car. An event as shown in the Fast and Furious franchise is unlikely to ever occur.

The future

The concerns about car hacking will relate to the manual theft of cars with the assistance of electronic hacking tools such as signal jammers and so on. It’s certainly going to be an interesting few years in the future.


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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...

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