Killer Cars? Auto Computer Systems Open to Malfunction, Hackers

Report warns about the growing threat of car hacking and electronic malfunction.

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Technological advancements, such as antilock brakes and stability controls, have made driving in America safer than it has ever been as traffic fatalities have plunged to historic lows. But as auto manufacturers imagine a future of self-driving and always-connected cars, they'll need to worry about something else—electronic malfunctions and cyberattacks, according to a report released by the Transportation Research Board.

Between 2009 and 2010, Toyota had to recall more than 8 million vehicles due to unexplained vehicle acceleration that some chalked up to electronic glitches. The TRB report chalked up those problems to driver error, but warned that electronic malfunctions are harder to trace than mechanical failures.

"You can find something that's broken or stuck, but like with a PC, you can have some vexing things happen," says Dennis Wilkie, a TRB board member and former executive at Ford. "Even if you reboot, you can't necessarily figure out what went wrong."

"Automobiles today are literally 'computers on wheels,'" says the report, released last week. And, like computers, car electronics don't always work like they're supposed to. As auto computers get more complex—current auto software uses more than a million lines of code—the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has to be prepared to spot coding errors that carmakers missed. "As the systems become more and more complex, the task of safety becomes ever more difficult," Wilkie says. "You almost can't prove, no matter how much testing you do, that incidents can't happen."

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In the coming years, onboard computers will become even more important, and, so far, auto computers have remained remarkably reliable.

"The future does hold a lot more electronics, whether it's for comfort and convenience, but also for safety," Wilkie says. "I think a large measure of the improvements in safety and reductions in highway deaths are probably attributable to systems like antilock brakes."

A computer crash isn't the only thing to worry about, according to the TRB. Like a computer, a car's internal software can be infected with a virus or hacked. Last year, researchers at the University of Washington and the University of California, San Diego, proved that computers could be hacked with either physical access to the car or wirelessly using technology such as Bluetooth. A hacker could then disable the brakes, stop the engine, or worse.

According to the report, "automotive manufacturers have designed their networks without giving sufficient attention to such cybersecurity vulnerabilities because automobiles have not faced adversarial pressures." As auto manufacturers explore car-to-car and car-to-Internet connections, they need to find a way to "harden the vehicles against such kinds of attacks," Wilkie says.