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Car hacking remains a very real threat as autos become ever more loaded with tech

JC Reindl, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Automotive News

But attitudes have been evolving. For instance, Fiat Chrysler in 2016 partnered with a San Francisco-based company to launch a "Bug Bounty Program" that pays so-called white-hat hackers up to $1,500 each time they discover a previously unknown vulnerability in vehicle software.

The major automakers also created the Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center, known as Auto-ISAC, to research and discuss best practices for cyber security.

"It is a concern that all of the (automakers) are addressing," said Faye Francy, the organization's executive director. "They're working at it and trying to share what they're learning."

So far, there have been no reported cases of real-life vehicle hackings that have resulted in crashes.

"But the research has shown that it's possible. And I'm sure none of the (automakers) wants to be the first to test those waters," said John Wall, senior vice president and head of BlackBerry QNX, which has beefed up the anti-hacker security in its vehicle operating software.

The potential danger of hacking could grow more serious once autonomous vehicles start hitting the roads in significant numbers in the 2020s. These driverless cars will be communicating with each other through means such as the "Cellular-Vehicle-to-Everything" system that Ford is testing with chipmaker Qualcomm.

Justin Cappos, a computer science professor at New York University's Tanden School of Engineering, said one of the more promising ways to stay ahead of hackers is through regular over-the-air software updates to fix vulnerabilities as soon as they become known.


For example, Tesla last summer sent out updates to all Tesla Model Xs after Chinese security researchers managed to turn on a Model X's brakes remotely and to get the doors and trunk to open and close while blinking the lights in time to music streamed from the vehicle's audio system.

"I will say that the automotive companies have really come a long way and have made strides," Cappos said. "But it's really hard when you are making something as complicated as cars, and you are buying components of the cars from vendors ... to get everyone to fix their security and get on the same page."

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