New vehicles are increasingly reliant on so-called “embedded systems”, small but sophisticated computers that control an array of functions including door locking, engine ignition, navigation, brakes and communications. These systems are in turn increasingly reliant on connectivity via cables, WiFi, Bluetooth and 3G networks to work together, meaning they are ripe for exploitation by hackers, according a report by the security firm McAfee. Researchers have already proved that it is possible to breach the security of on-board computers. Last year, a team from the University of Washington demonstrated Car Shark, a software programme that allowed them to take control of the Control Area Network, a standard system in modern cars that allows moving parts to communicate electronically. The researchers were able to disable the brakes in a moving car, lock the doors and shut down the engine. However, the Car Shark team emphasised that their attacks were not easy to carry out.
“Many examples of research-based hacks show the potential threats and depth of compromise that expose the consumer,” said Stuart McClure from McAfee. “It’s one thing to have your email or laptop compromised but having your car hacked could translate to dire risks to your personal safety.” Wind River, an embedded systems provider to car manufacturers, urged the industry to improve its security. “The auto industry is experiencing a convergence of consumer and automotive electronics,” said spokesman MR.GeorgDoll. “Consumers are increasingly expecting the same experiences in-vehicle as they do with the latest connected consumer and mobile devices. However, as the trend for ubiquitous connectivity grows, so does the potential for security vulnerabilities.” The trend towards computerised cars is expected to continue. Google has pioneered robotic vehicles which drive themselves, and in June Nevada passed laws to allow them on public roads.