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There is no doubt the car of the future will be safer, smarter and offer greater high-tech gadgets and gizmos, but without improved security the risk of car hacking is real.

“The security protection on cars is virtually non-existent, it is at a level of protection that a desktop computer system had in the 1980s, the basic security requirements such as authentication, confidentiality and integrity are not strong,” said Professor Andry Rakotonirainy from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety – Queensland (CARRS). He has researched the security systems of existing fleet, future autonomous and connected cars and found there was little protection against hacking.

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“What this means is that as vehicles become more and more connected and autonomous, with the ability to communicate to other vehicles and infrastructure through wireless networks, the threat of cyber attack increases putting people’s safety and security at risk.”

While most vehicles built within the last decade had features allowing them to connect to the Internet and communicate with devices within the vehicle, the development of intelligent transport systems meant future cars would connect to wireless networks as standard and would offer a higher level of automation, Rakotonirainy said.

Cyber Security

He said all new cars have technology called CAN-BUS located under the steering wheel, allowing anyone to check the health of a vehicle and to control it.

CAN-BUS provides access to the brain of a car.

“This CAN-BUS allows all microcontrollers within a car to communicate to each other and is accessible via a mere plug,” he said. “It can be used to control almost everything such as the airbags, brakes, cruise control and power steering systems. CAN-BUS can be accessed locally or remotely with simple devices.”

This is just the beginning, he said.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg as future cars will feature a tremendous mix of wireless networks and offer numerous opportunities to improve safety, entertainment and comfort.

“For example, cars will be wirelessly connected to other cars. If a vehicle stops ahead, a warning can be issued to drivers behind to slow down, or vehicles can automatically take control and slowdown without the driver’s intervention.

“It will also be possible for vehicles to connect with infrastructure. For example, if a light turned red, but an approaching vehicle failed to slow, perhaps because the driver was distracted, a warning could be issued or action taken to automatically control the vehicle.”

Rakotonirainy said while these features have the potential to improve road safety, if hacked, people’s lives could be at risk.

“If someone hacks into a vehicle’s electronics via a wireless network and exploits the current security loophole, they can track or take control of it,” he said.

Rakotonirainy said it was vital for car makers, government and road safety experts to turn their attention to this global security threat.

“We need to be analyzing the types of risk that that these intelligent vehicles are facing and work to provide a secure, reliable and trusted protection system,” Rakotonirainy said.

“A vehicle’s communication security over wireless networks cannot be an afterthought and needs to be comprehensively considered at the early stages of design and deployment of these high-tech systems from the hardware, software, user and policy point of view.”

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