Are Electric Cars Vulnerable to Hackers?

Electric Cars

Back in 1997, Toyota unveiled Prius – the first mass produced, commercially successful electric car. Since then, for many consumers the idea of a re-chargeable vehicle that doesn’t burn fuel or create smog has gone from quirky kitsch to trendy must-have. From affordable to luxury, there are tons of brands getting in on the action – BMW, Cadillac, Porsche, Ford, Chevy, Tesla. These new models are super high-tech, able to provide a long-lasting battery life with more horsepower than earlier generations.

But have EVs gotten too sophisticated for their own good? Anyone who’s taken auto mechanic courses or works professionally in the field knows that a vehicle is only as good as its security features. No consumer will pay top dollar for a car with limited safety options – or faulty locks! And recent tests performed on some of the latest EVs have revealed weaknesses in the computer guidance systems that could make vital systems (including door locks) vulnerable to high-tech hackers.

University Team Hacks Tesla Model S

At a recent security symposium in China, several teams competed to see who could hack the Tesla Model S the fastest. Ultimately, a team from Zhejiang University took the $10,000 prize by exposing something called a “flow design flaw” in the Tesla’s engineering. The university team was able to take control over several of the vehicle’s key systems, not to mention its horn, door locks, and window mechanisms – all while the car was still moving. Tesla was happy for the intel, saying it supports “responsible researchers” who can help reveal and correct security flaws and potential vulnerabilities like these.

A Matter Of National Security

Car lovers in pursuit of auto careers may never have envisioned themselves as protectors of national security, but with EVs on the rise, traditional auto mechanic training could well evolve to working with complex computer systems and helping identify weaknesses in security. An American organization called DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) works with the government on everything from bioengineering to military defense technology – and last year they launched their own investigation into EV computer security. DARPA hired two experts to hack a 2010 Ford Escape and a 2010 Toyota Prius, and then published a report on the various ways EVs can be infiltrated and manipulated via their computer control networks.

The two experts managed to gain impressive access to the Escape and Prius, eventually hacking their steering, braking, display, and acceleration systems – all with another driver behind the wheel. The report also highlights possible solutions, but there’s a long way to go before complex EV systems can be made more hacker-proof.

At The Mercy Of Computer Code

One of the reason EV hacking is such a concern, is that there’s no easy remedy. Car drivers are really at the mercy of complex code. When a virus or hacker compromises our laptop or tablet, the system crashes and we may lose valuable data – but in the end, we’re physically unharmed. On the other hand, a system crash in an electric car can be far more deadly. For now, there’s no simple way to program monitors into the embedded systems, like an alarm that sounds when a seat belt is unused or a door is left ajar. When it comes to EVs, security is still playing catch-up to high performance innovation.

Given the potential vulnerabilities of their computer systems, do you consider EVs too risky to drive?

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