By Homer Ashburn
Remember the days when the car was a marvel of engineering? Pistons, carburettors, the internal combustion engine with nary a computer in sight? You stepped on an accelerator connected to several mechanical bits that opened and closed other mechanical parts and – bang – off you went.
Nowadays, while things like the engine still remains at the core of any automobile – some say the true heart of any car – practically everything that we take for granted in our well-oiled machine is made up silicon chips and transistors.
According to a recent article in the New York Times, the average family sedan has more than 30 computers that it needs to move you from A to B in some comfort and safety. Luxury vehicles apparently have as many as 100 of such electronic control units and it is said that the modern car has more lines of computer code than you would find in most modern fighter jets.
Why so many, you ask? Do we really need s many computers? It’s just a car. Actually, if you really look closely at your car in the driveway – be it a Proton or a Peugeot – you’ll find that all the things that we take for granted need some form of electronic control unit to make it work.
Like, for instance, climate control. The alarm and immobiliser is another. Throw in visible tech like parking sensors, automatic transmission, and central locking and power windows, and non-visible tech like ABS and engine management systems, and you can see why your car can’t run without computers.
Which raises the point of today’s article … a computer is a computer and, like any computer, it seems that your car’s computers can get the equivalent of a digital cold. Researches from the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Washington have found out that – thanks to all those processors – your car can get hacked.
Now, most of us, at one point or another, have experienced having our laptops or desktops hit by a virus that disables one or more of their capabilities. In extreme cases, the entire computer is rendered inoperable.
Now, imagine that happening to your car following a virus attack or a hack. Those wonderful boffins from those two institutions of higher learning have apparently found out that – by hacking into a car’s computers – they could switch off the engine, lock the doors and even kill the brakes.
And it wasn’t some old junk they did their tests on. While they were discreet not to mention the model or make, they did say that the car in question was manufactured in …2009.
Right, at this point in time, you have to wonder how exactly the computers in your car can get hacked. After all, the last time you checked, you don’t use your car to surf the Net or to download educational stimuli of the adult variety.
Well, according to the researchers who hacked their way into that 2009 model car, there are a variety of ways of getting control of a car’s electronic processing unit. One way is via a car’s Bluetooth system. All it took the research team to hack the car was a CD with an extra code to a digital file, While you play the CD, the virus in the disc alters the firmware of the stereo system, which then provides the hacker the entry point to change all the other computers in the car.
At this point in the technical evolution of the car, a virus spread through your car stereo, can do quite a range of damage, ranging from some basic B&E (breaking and entering) right up to and including fooling around with a car’s acceleration and braking systems.
But, for now, hacking is still very much caused by having your car infiltrated by an external source, like that virus-laden CD and that diagnostic tool with the malicious software lurking in its innards.
How about in the future when cars are linked to the world wide web via WiFi? When cars start sharing information about traffic jams and accidents via ad-hoc car-to-car networks, and when the electronics help to make the hassle of driving as hassle-free as possible through things like crash mitigation software and automatic parking?
What happens then when your car of the near future starts becoming as affected by viruses, Trojans, malwares and the other nasties all too common in our home computers? When a hacker can, via a line of code, convert your car into a murder tool?
It’s the ultimate …Criminal Minds/CSI/NCIS episode …murder by hacked automobile.