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Emerging Danger: Self-Driving Cars Vulnerable to Hacking?

As we patiently wait to be enslaved by robotic overlords, we make strides to forgo the remedial tasks of our lives through the use of automated technology. With the push of a button you can have a pizza at your door in less than thirty minutes.

Welcome to the future.

Our urge to automate, however, goes well beyond the lucrative business of pizza delivery. Both the manufacturing and transportation industries have made significant strides in becoming fully autonomous. It is predicted that by the year 2020 that over ten million self-driving cars will be on the road.

It is undeniable that within our lifetime, the way we transport ourselves and products will rely solely on the mind of a computer. Scary, right?

Besides the ethical challenges facing the world of self-driving cars, another threat looms on this distant reality: hacking.

Imagine commuting to work in your self-driving car. All of a sudden a message pops up on a screen. “Congrats! You’ve been hacked.” Now your peaceful commute has turned into scene from a horror movie. Your two ton vehicle has now become someone’s RC toy car.

Situations such as these shows how lightly we need to tread as we become comfortable with the idea of a computer driving us around.

How easy is it to hack a car?

At this point in time, many autonomous vehicles rely on internet-connected computers. This means that a hacker who can access the cars network has the ability to override the cars functions, such as steering or braking.

As self-driving cars become more popular, ride-sharing companies such as Uber are looking to adopt a fleet of fully autonomous cars. Though having the ability to run a taxi service without drivers seems like promising investment, there is absolutely no way to control the kind of people who take a ride. This includes hackers.

Simply plugging an internet-connected device into a car’s OBD2 port- an outlet under the dashboard- can give a hacker full control of the vehicle. Even if a breach is noticed, the odds that the company identify who it was that hacked to car are very small. Every customer could be a potential threat.

Hackers do not even need to be in the vehicle to gain total control. In 2015, two security researchers were able to remotely control a partially autonomous Jeep Cherokee and drive it into a ditch by accessing the car’s internet radio. This experiment baffled the auto industry, showing how truly vulnerable these types of cars can be.

Increasing Security Measures

Fortunately, the government has begun setting standards and regulations for self-driving cars. However, even though the Department of Transportation has included cybersecurity within their safety assessment for autonomous vehicles, it is unlikely that this problem will be solved through government regulation. The burden of this problem lies within the companies themselves. It is up to them to make the appropriate security measures necessary to combat potential cyberattacks. 

In an effort to alleviate this overwhelming concern, Google and Waymo are setting a new standard for autonomous vehicles. Their self-driving cars will be unplugged from the internet and disconnected from the cloud almost entirely. Enabling these cars to run offline is an incremental step in the right direction for preventing hackers from accessing these cars remotely.

To this day, there have been no documented cases of autonomous cars being hacked maliciously. It is absolutely imperative that companies understand how detrimental a cyberattack on an autonomous vehicle can be. As long as companies begin an open conversation with one another, we have the time to get ahead of this potential threat before something truly horrendous happens.

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