RAC Cars News


Can your car be hacked?

By raccars Published

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Cars are becoming more complex than ever before, with computers controlling many aspects of their operation. Today’s average car has between 50 and 100 small computers on-board, controlling everything from engine performance to braking and infotainments systems. In many respects, the modern car is like a giant computer. The Apollo 11 spacecraft that first put men on the moon had 145,000 lines of software code on-board. The modern car has more than 100 million. Up until recently, this was not much of a problem but the situation has changed dramatically with today’s 'connected' cars.

Modern cars are increasingly coming with wireless connectivity for navigation systems and other controls. This is exposing them to the dangers of hacking, which could result in a car engine being switched off remotely, the brakes being disabled or the steering taken over. The problem is that the underlying technology in a car's computers is extremely old and was never intended to be networked. These chips do not offer any form of authentication checks and will simply perform any task they are instructed to carry out, without establishing where that command is coming from. They are also all connected to a single network 'spine', meaning that once one component is hacked, any of the others can also be accessed.

According to researcher, Ed Adams, of car security analysts, Security Innovation, the technology in our cars is simply not up to the task of a networked system. He says: "Auto manufacturers are not up to speed. They’re just behind the times. Car software is not built to the same standards as, say, a bank application, or software coming out of Microsoft." The problem is only going to get more serious as cars become more connected. The latest range of Audis and Tesla cars will be permanently connected to a major telephone data network, potentially exposing them to the dangers of hacking attempts.

Car companies are, however, beginning to wake up to the problem. Ford is building in firewalls to its technology, in a bid to combat tampering. They have also employed a group of 'white hat' hackers to probe their systems for weaknesses. Toyota is also moving forward, embedding security chips in their cars' computers. The problem will remain, though, because the car's systems continue to be connected to its primary controls and therefore are vulnerable to attack. Plans are also underway to develop car to car communications, to warn of dangers on the road ahead. Such initiatives, along with self-driving cars, will require a far more careful approach to digital security.

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