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The Hackability of Autonomous Vehicles

With autonomous vehicles being tested all around the world, drivers must prepare for the inevitable reality that soon there will many autonomous vehicles on the road. This raises concerns about the safety of such vehicles and whether they are actually safer than traditional vehicles.

One of the biggest fears is that an autonomous vehicle could be hacked and used to either intentionally kill the passengers or as a weapon against another individual or group of individuals.
This is certainly a valid concern and was even demonstrated in 2015 by the tech magazine Wired when they remotely stopped a Jeep on a highway to show that it is indeed possible to hack a vehicle that is in production. The demonstration even prompted Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to send a software patch loaded onto a USB drive to 1.4 million Jeep owners.

What Do the Professionals Say?

When it comes to the hackability of autonomous vehicles, there is no better person to ask than the person designing them.

A recent blockbuster The Fate of the Furious depicted a scene where dozens of vehicles were remotely hacked and used to nefarious end by driving them at a target or causing a mass pileup to trap them.

When asked about the plausibility of the scene, director of Green Hills Software in California Joe Fabbre told USA Today, “That’s Hollywood sensationalizing it, but that is not really that far-fetched. There are very skilled hackers out there who can beat through a lot of medium and low levels of robustness in terms of security that is present in a lot of cars today.”

What’s Being Done About the Hacking Threat?

You know we are entering strange times when even the most sensational Hollywood scenes are not that far from reality. The threat of being hacked has prompted numerous vehicle manufacturers to push wireless software updates to their vehicles to enhance security. Another way automakers are tightening security is by changing the way they approach the problem by hiring hackers to try to hack vehicle software in order to identify weak points.

One program in 2016 launched by a tech company in San Francisco was called the “Bug Bounty Program” and offered hackers $1,500 for each vulnerability they could expose.

Another concern that has been raised when it comes to the vulnerability of autonomous vehicle software is the fact that all of them will be connected. Systems such as Ford’s “Cellular-Vehicle-To-Everything” system will allow all of its autonomous vehicles to communicate, prompting worries that if one vehicle were to be compromised then all of them could be accessed through that one vulnerable vehicle.

Has Anyone Been Killed by a Hacked Autonomous Vehicle?

So far no official reports of death resulting from an autonomous vehicle being hacked have been made, but there has been at least one death at the hands of an autonomous vehicle. An autonomous Uber vehicle was being tested in Arizona when a woman with a bike crossed in front of it in near total darkness. The sudden object and dark conditions caused the vehicle to fail to react in time and neither did the accompanying driver. The woman was struck and killed by the vehicle, which prompted outrage at the program. It was forced to shut down and cease operations in the state of Arizona.

Another instance involving autonomous vehicles occurred when researchers at a Chinese security firm managed to hack a Tesla Model X. The researchers remotely controlled the brakes of the vehicle, opened the doors and trunk, and blinked the lights to the music that they were streaming through the vehicle. Tesla was quick to respond by pushing a security update to the Model X remotely.

What Does the Future Look Like?

The march forward into an autonomous future seems unstoppable, with Phoenix company Waymo recently ordering another 62,000 Chrysler Pacifica vans for its self-driving fleet. These are modified from the production versions you can get at Landmark South in Belton, MO.

The biggest concern with autonomous vehicles may be hacking but there are some other unnerving aspects to them as well, such as how the vehicle will respond when presented with a choice to either kill a pedestrian or drive off a bridge. That may be an extreme example, but the morality of the programming of autonomous vehicles has been a huge center of the debate. For now, automakers will have to keep on their toes and continue pushing wireless updates in order to stay ahead of the hackers.

One might even wonder with all the risks involved, are autonomous vehicles actually safer than traditional vehicles? For now, that answer will continue to evolve with the technology, but drivers should certainly begin preparing for a future where they share the road with autonomous vehicles.