Car Hacking: Imminent Threat or Far-Fetched Fear?

Self-driving cars are an incredible advent in modern technology and many people say that they are the only logical evolution of the automobile. There are various benefits to owning a self-driving car, and as the technology improves further, we as humans probably won’t even have to know how to operate a vehicle ourselves; the onboard computer will be able to do all the work for us. You could kick back, relax, even take a nap while your AI driver delivers you to your destination.

This image provided by Google shows a very early version of Google's prototype self-driving car. The two-seater won't be sold publicly, but Google on Tuesday, May 27, 2014 said it hopes by this time next year, 100 prototypes will be on public roads. (AP Photo/Google)

However, there’s something very scary about not being in control of the 2000 lbs hunk of metal that’s capable of accelerating us to more than 200 mph. Since force equals mass times acceleration, in case something goes seriously wrong that’s a whole lot of force that we’re going to have to deal with, a lot more than our fragile bodies can handle.

And because this technology is very advanced, the number of things that can go wrong is much higher than if you were operating a traditional vehicle. So what if we told you that it’s theoretically possible for hackers to gain control of the software operating your vehicle, and thus control of the vehicle itself? Imagine the situation for a second: a hacker, located who knows where (probably hidden behind a VPN and various other layers of security) breaks into the software of your car’s onboard computer, gaining the ability to crash your car, or drive it wherever they see fit. It’s certainly not a situation that you’d like to put yourself into, right?


It’s Already Happened

In 2015, researchers Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller successfully exploited a flaw in the security of an autonomous vehicle, using the mobile Wi-Fi system to remotely take control of a few key systems using just a laptop. Not only were they able to manipulate the air conditioner, the volume of the audio and the windshield wipers, they even succeeded in stopping the vehicle altogether.

The good news is that these guys weren’t hackers. They were simply researchers who intentionally attempted to hack a vehicle, just to confirm that there indeed was a security flaw. However, nothing suggests that the same thing couldn’t have happened in real life, which is why the automaker was forced to recall close to half a million models of the vehicle, costing the company millions of dollars.


Despite the fact that Valasek and Miller have proven that it is indeed possible to take control of a vehicle remotely, many people still claim that this is just a journalistic scare tactic and nothing more. Their main argument is that no hacker to-date has managed to compromise the software of a self-driving vehicle,and thus it is no immediate threat. And while it is true that it’s extremely difficult to hack this kind of software and that Miller and Valasek themselves only managed to do it after a year of trying, all that means is that hackers still aren’t able to pull this off.

Experts predict that self-driving cars will be ready for regular use somewhere around 2020, and that means that hackers still have more than three years to improve their technology, and will continue doing so even after that. In fact, the more self-driving cars become widespread, the more they’ll be accessible to the general public, and that means that more and more people will become familiarized with the software. As the software develops further and starts syncing up with our smartphones and tablets, hackers are going to use that fact to discover more and more ways to compromise it. They already know how to get into your smartphone, and if your smartphone is synced up with your car,who’s to say they’re not going to discover a way to use it in order to gain control of the vehicle?


Final Verdict

If you already own a self-driving car or if you’re planning to get one in the next few years, you probably aren’t in any imminent danger. As we mentioned, hackers still aren’t very proficient at breaking in to your car’s onboard software, and a year is a very long time to be working on a security breach as software usually tends to update itself much more frequently than that. So, imminent threat? Not really. But we can’t really put it into the “far-fetched fear” category, either; it’s2016, we’re well into the 21st century and it’s amazing what people are doing with information technology these days. It’s progressing at an alarming rate, and no matter how much software developers work on security issues, somehow hackers still end up finding ways to pull off successful breaches.

In the end, the judgment call of whether you’re going to put yourself behind the wheel of a self-driving car largely depends on two factors: how much you trust your automobile company to take care of security issues, and how careful you are about security. The more you can learn about information technology and how it works, the safe you’re going to be.

The hacking attempt by Valasek and Miller proved to be successful because the car had a functional,built-in mobile data system, which means that it was literally connected to the Internet at all times. This is the only reason that it could be accessed remotely, and if the driver simply chose to turn off mobile data, this would’ve been physically impossible; no coherent connection could be established between the hacker and the automobile, as Wi-Fi simply doesn’t have the necessary range. In other words, it was due to “personal error”. If you can educate yourself on how to use technology in order to prevent a security breach, if you truly understand how it works even if it just on a basic level, then you’re most likely safe for the time being.

Our Guest Writer

Adam Ferraresi is 23 years old, but he first became interested in writing when he was in high school.Today he’s a successful web developer living in Dallas, Texas, and one of the most trusted writers at In his free time, he’s an avid mountain climber and enjoys playing basketball with his friends.


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