Could your connected car get hacked?

The auto industry and government agencies are working to thwart car hackings, but experts say it's not something we should worry about right now.

Car hackings may no longer be a thing of the future.

With technology making it increasingly easier for a number of cars to be controlled by smartphones and computers, the potential for hacking attacks is real and dangerous.

Pretty much anything that's controlled by a computer could be susceptible to a hack, however innocuous it might be, said Peter Byk, engineering specialist for ground vehicle standards at SAE international, which creates standards for the aerospace and auto industries.

"Theoretically, it could range from nonsense things such as turning the lights or wipers on, playing with the radio's volume to something more major where you could potentially control the vehicle control systems," he said.

Related: US says self-driving cars are not ready yet

In a nod to this, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator (NHTSA) recently created an Electronics Systems Safety Research Division which will focus on addressing thwarting hacker threats to vehicles.

"These interconnected electronics systems are creating opportunities to improve vehicle safety and reliability, but are also creating new and different safety and cyber security risks," NHTSA head David Strickland said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing May 15. "We don't want to be behind the eight ball."

'THREAT IS VERY MINIMAL AT THE MOMENT'

Although there have been no known public occurrences to date, experiments in controlled lab situations have shown that trained graduates were able to hack into cars with some effort.

"Realistically, the threat is very minimal to the general public," said Byk.

Related: Was journalist Michael Hastings' car hacked?

Still, Byk says, the auto industry and the NHTSA are very cognizant of the issue.

"There's a great deal of work being done on security – some of the information is proprietary because of competition," he said, adding that recent news about malicious hackings into private computers has raised the specter for automobiles.

"They are kind of being at the forefront of exercising due caution, they are doing the right thing," Byk said of the auto industry and government agencies working to thwart attacks.

Related: 10 best vehicles for the end of the world

Everything from connecting your smart phone to your car, to embedded phones in vehicles, to the connected vehicle program – where cars will be able to talk to one another – could be targets for potential hackings, Byk said.

For now, he advises consumers to use technology according to manufacturing guidebooks, secure passwords and use caution while pairing their phones with vehicles.

CARS ARE NOW 'COMPUTERS ON WHEELS'

Incidents such as a disgruntled employee tampering with a web-based vehicle-immobilization system that set more than 100 cars honking out of control in an Austin, Texas car sales center, or the ease with which a group of university researchers hacked into wireless tire pressure monitoring systems have shown how susceptible the modern automobile is to cyber attacks.

According to a joint study by the University of California San Diego and Washington University, there are over 250 million registered passenger automobiles in the United States, the vast majority of which are controlled by computers to a significant degree.

All new cars are now widely computerized, the study says, adding that despite cars becoming more and more dependent on wireless sensors and devices, a lot of it remains unfamiliar territory to the computer security community.

Related: How automakers shield your car's electronics from hackers

"Modern automobiles are no longer mere mechanical devices; they are pervasively monitored and controlled by dozens of digital computers coordinated via internal vehicular networks," wrote the researchers, who were able to demonstrate how an attacker could easily "control a wide range of automotive functions and completely ignore driver input – including disabling the breaks, selectively braking individual wheels on demand stopping the engine, and so on."

"The lab experiments took a lot of in-depth knowledge of the vehicle," Byk said. "It's not like some teenager in a basement is hacking into cars thousands of miles away."

 

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