The Newest Safety Concern: Cybersecurity

Photo by Tyler Lipa
Photo by Tyler Lipa

If you're savvy enough, you might be able to one day get that gridlock traffic out of your way with a few keystrokes.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and 18 automakers signed an agreement on January 15th to create a new system of proactive safety regulations and enter into a collaborative coalition. This coalition will address a need for a more streamlined safety recall system and a more comprehensive approach to the growing concern of vehicle cybersecurity.

According to the DOT, 32,675 people lost their lives in motor vehicle accidents in 2014. They attribute 94 percent of these crashes to human error. In response to this automakers have begun rolling out autonomous driver assist features that can keep your vehicle at a safe distance while cruising on the highway, or even bring your vehicle to a complete stop in an emergency. Like most new innovations these new safety features have created a problem that was unheard of in the automotive world. The problem of finding yourself not in control of your own vehicle is indeed a major consideration for vehicle owners.

Cybersecurity is a major concern for automakers and the government. NHTSA, the DOT and automakers are pledging to put as many resources as possible to identify and rectify possible cybersecurity issues that will arise in next generation vehicles that will feature autonomous driving technology. Beginning in May of 2015, the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Energy and Commerce began questioning automakers in regard to cybersecurity issues. The Committee was concerned with automakers integrating computer technologies into their vehicles, but the Committee did not believe automakers had a comprehensive plan to identify these problems.

Little did the Committee know that their fears would be confirmed just a month later by a pair of security researchers. Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek were a team of researchers who bombarded new vehicles with constant cyber attacks. Through this research Miller and Valasek discovered it was possible to hack into the current Jeep Cherokee. Unlike prior hacking attempts, this attack did not require the hacker to be physically connected to the vehicle. This hack was facilitated through the Wi-Fi capable radio head-unit to tunnel, a computing term that means to use a program to send a signal remotely or directly through a system despite being of a foreign origin, into every system including the brake and transmission control units. According to the conclusions that Miller and Valasek posted on, they did this from 10 miles away.

Some of these technologies are already on the market in the form of automatic park assist and cruise control that can keep you at a safe distance from the cars around you. Tesla Motors, a member of the 18 automaker coalition, for example used a recent software update to allow owners have their vehicles drive autonomously to meet them curbside. This technology is disrupting how regulators view cars compared to other transportation technology.

The DOT drew a parallel of this program to a similar program run by the Federal Aviation Administration known as the safety management system (SMS) which allows airlines to share safety information. The government is making it clear that cars have reached a point where the problems associated with them require the same oversight as something that travels at 300 miles per hour at 35 thousand feet.

Cybersecurity seems to be the only important aspect to this new safety coalition. According to NHTSA figures less than one percent of traffic fatalities are caused by manufacturer defects. What does this new focus on cybersecurity mean for the future of safety? The comparison to airplanes seems fair, but it seems that the DOT and NHTSA could have drawn a more fitting parallel to smartphone security. Smartphones are a great safety and security concern, but most consumers are happy to be oblivious of how their personal data is kept safe.

Are you concerned with the cybersecurity of your car? Or, is this something that is simply a concern for high profile figures?

EDITOR'S NOTE: Victory & Reseda welcomes Tyler Lipa to our team! He should be a familiar name to those who have read his work in the blogosphere, on the web and through social media. Lipa has returned to the world of automotive writing/journalism/blogging after some time off. We are very happy he did! You can follow him on Twitter as @TylerLipa

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