Can self-driving cars be vulnerable to dangerous cyber attacks?

Smart cars and self-driving vehicles aren’t on the horizon any more…they’re here now. And while this opens up a world of opportunities, one risk of the technology that is also emerging is that self-driving cars could be vulnerable to hackers.
Self-driving cars cyber attacks
Self-driving cars are an intriguing innovation, but researchers say that they could be vulnerable to cyber attacks. Photo: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr.

Criminal justice theory

Researchers from Michigan State University have applied criminal justice theory to so-called smart vehicles, and have found that these semi-intelligent vehicles could also be highly vulnerable to cyber crime.

“Automotive cybersecurity is an area we don’t understand well in the social sciences. While there are groups of computer scientists and engineers digging into some of the issues, the social aspects are extremely relevant and under-examined,” Thomas Holt, professor of criminal justice at MSU, told Science Daily.

The obvious basis for this is that self-driving cars will be connected to Wi-Fi at all times, and even the most technologically ignorant among us will know that Wi-Fi poses security risks by its very nature. Having car-connected Wi-Fi simply opens up a whole new world of opportunity for hackers and cyber criminals.

Self-driving cars cyber attacks
Self-driving cars are set to become popular in the coming years, with many manufacturers working on them. Photo: Pixabay.

USB vulnerability

Another issue for those with smart vehicles could be USB ports. Many smart vehicles provide opportunities for drivers and passengers to connect devices via USB, and while this may seem highly convenient and even fun, the reality is that this can inadvertently provide hackers with access to data from both your phone and car.

If this wasn’t worrying enough in itself, then the downloading of apps in smart vehicles can also be an issue. Android users are particularly inclined to download apps from unverified sites, and these then put users at greater risk, as they can often contain vulnerabilities.

The scientists at Michigan State University have published research in the Journal of Crime and Justice applied Routine Activities Theory, and as part of the process published a raft of guidelines for manufacturers to follow when attempting to improve cybersecurity of autonomous and self-driving vehicles.

But that certainly doesn’t negate the dangers entirely. There are personal data risks with smart vehicles, and hackers could even compromise certain alert systems within cars, potentially even leading to loss of life.

Self-driving cars cyber attacks
USB ports and downloaded apps could be an area of vulnerability according to experts. Photo: Aaron Yoo via Flickr.

Self-driving hacks

One major issue was demonstrated by a group of Chinese hackers, who claim that they were able to induce Tesla‚Äôs Autopilot self-driving software to veer into an oncoming lane of traffic. Elon Musk even commented on the issue on Twitter, conceding that the efforts of the hackers was “solid work”.

Another potential problem could see self-driving cars hacked to a virtual stand still. Researchers ran a simulation in which they investigated the effect of 20% of vehicles in Manhattan being stalled by hackers. The simulation concluded that such an outcome would completely gridlock Manhattan. And this possibility certainly cannot be discounted, as Wired already demonstrated two hackers ‘killing’ a jeep with just the aid of a laptop.

Technology in the self-driving niche is certainly potentially useful, and could ultimately aid safety. But it would be naive to discount the risks associated with it. Manufacturers and developers involved with self-driving technology have a lot of work to do if they are to alleviate such problems, and reassure the general public.

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