Issue: Mar 2018


They really are out to get us



by Ed Richardson

When Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22 wrote “just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you” he would probably not have had the designers and drivers of connected and autonomous cars in mind.

But, what was true in 1961 when the novel was published is as true today – with a major technology upgrade. The principle is the same – there is a legion of tech-smart people out there wanting to hack into vehicles for a variety of reasons, ranging from “just because I can” to extortion to terrorism.

Concerns about cybersecurity is a common thread running through much of the content of this edition of Automotive Industries. What the articles show is that the industry understands that cybersecurity needs to be built into all electronic systems and components – even those which would have been stand-alone accessories not too long ago.

Users (people) remain the biggest risk. That radio/DVD player with USB, aux input and Bluetooth connectivity could be an open door to the inner controls of a vehicle. And, as has been shown in numerous movies and real-life events, the hacker does not even need to be near the vehicle. A complimentary USB with motivational talks or a selection of music is all that is needed. An open Bluetooth connection makes it even easier to hack into the vehicle -  via the car’s headset or the driver’s phone connected to the entertainment system.

Then there’s the technical team in the workshop. One of the first things they do is to plug a laptop into the OBD port to check for faults. Bugs can be transferred in the process – either intentionally, or as malware embedded in the machine when the techie used it to order takeaways. After that we get to the more difficult or challenging stuff – hacking into the connected car through its communication portals.

Hackers have a large target: Modern vehicles have more than 50 microcomputers containing 100 million lines of code networked with each other and dozens of sensors and actuators – all of which are potential security risks. Engine management systems are now vehicle management systems, with drive-by-wire electronics able to control most functions. It is not totally paranoid to believe that your car could drive you into a lake and to keep all the windows and doors locked (and seatbelt fastened) to prevent your escape.

There is also good reason to be paranoid about the supposed “good guys” in the equation – the companies developing the software and hardware that are making cars safer, greener and more fun to be in. Firstly, the software controlling steering, brakes and acceleration needs to have plenty of redundancy built into to ensure that the driver retains control under all conditions. It is mostly an inconvenience when a broken fan belt cuts out the power steering, but a power failure in a steer-by-wire system is life-threatening. To the credit of the developers and OEMs, there does seem to be a concerted effort to ensure that the necessary levels of safety are built into the systems.

But, to continue along the paranoia route, another risk is the potential business failure of the technology providers. Intel founder Andy Grove wrote “Only the Paranoid Survive” in 1999. It would seem that there are not enough paranoid business leaders. The truth is that very few companies survive in their current form for very long. A team of Credit Suisse analysts told investors in August 2017 that the average life of company listed on the S&P 500 has dropped from 60 years in the 1950s to less than 20 years currently. The lifespan of non-listed companies is probably shorter.

Users of the software and hardware being developed for connected and autonomous vehicles will need to know that the systems will outlast the company and its founders. Will there be others who can continue supporting the systems when the bright young team of techies cash in and move on to the next challenge or take up organic farming in Peru? Or will the next owner of the software use it to leverage additional income? OEMs face reputational and financial risks if one of their suppliers is found to be using the data collected from connected vehicles without the permission of the consumer for their own commercial gain.

None of which means we have to go back to the Model T. We will end as we started – with a quote: “Your mind is working at its best when you're being paranoid. You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed with total clarity.” ― Banksy, Banging Your Head Against a Brick Wall



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