Computer Cars: An Easy Target for Hackers

Modern cars are the beneficiaries of massive advancements in technology and improvements to manufacturing, but improvements can sometimes create new vulnerabilities. When we think of hackers, we generally think of computers and smart phones, but the electronics inside modern cars are no less complex and are significantly more vulnerable to manipulation.

Cars today rely on a series of mini-computers scattered throughout their frame that control everything from dashboard lights to steering and braking. Many newer models have more than fifty of these computers that constantly communicate and make adjustments, and a failure by any one of these computers can create a very dangerous driving situation. For example, in the past year more than two million cars have been recalled due to a degrading chip that caused the airbag to suddenly deploy.[1]

Onboard computers have been proliferating throughout our vehicles for years, but recently uncovered security vulnerabilities show just how dangerous they can be. During the struggle to stay on the cutting edge of technology, some automotive companies have rushed the development and implementation of new systems, which might have security implications. BMW now estimates that 2.2 million of their vehicles can be broken into using nothing more than a smartphone.[2]

Industry-wide, computer security experts have repeatedly demonstrated how easy it is to seize and control vehicles. Steering and braking functions can be manipulated remotely, and there is at least one real-world instance of a disgruntled dealership employee manipulating dozens of cars. Furthermore, experts warn that the rapid development and deployment of planned technologies allowing cars to communicate with each other and with computers in buildings and parking lots creates even larger security vulnerabilities.[3]

It is perhaps not surprising that such vulnerable technologies exist in the absence of regulation, but new efforts are underway to impose standards on the electronic components that are necessary to our modern cars. Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut are spearheading an effort to require the National Traffic Highway Safety Administration and the Federal Trade Commission to require automakers to increase security efforts and not to allow new products or systems onto the roads until they have been adequately tested and searched for vulnerabilities.[4]

We all understand and use seat belts, turn signals and other safety equipment on our vehicles. The time has come for our vehicles’ inner workings to have the same protection and offer us the same standard of safety and peace of mind.

About The Author: Jamie Kessel is a personal injury attorney practicing with the law firm of Allen & Allen at their office in Short Pump. His practice is focused in the areas of car accidents, product liability, premises liability, and distracted driving accidents. He was named one of the 2015 Legal Elite by Virginia Business Magazine and has been honored as one of the “Top 50 Attorneys in Richmond” and “Top 100 Attorneys in Virginia” by Virginia Super Lawyers.


[2] Ibid.