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Will Hackers Target Autonomous Cars?

As more drivers grow accustomed to operating vehicles equipped with sophisticated computerized systems, a public debate has arisen about potential problems associated with the merger of high tech and automotive technologies. The possibility self-driving automobiles will soon become a significant daily presence in many places has lent urgency to concerns regarding hacking. After all, when the Internet first arose, who ever imagined online visitors would need to protect personal computers against malicious threats such as viruses, trojans, and malware?

Government Concern

Agencies within the United State government have already issued warnings about automotive hacking issues. For instance, earlier this month the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a set of preliminary recommendations for manufacturers creating products for the new industry entitled: Federal Automated Vehicles Policy.

This initiative from the U.S. Department of Transportation called upon companies building self-driving vehicles and autonomous car components to make safety a very high priority. It also urged developers to share information with one another in order to promote the creation of compatible systems.

Developing Anti-hacking Technology

Promoting interoperable automotive computer systems might expedite the development of the autonomous car industry. For instance, the chip maker Nvidia on September 28, 2016 revealed a new “supercomputer” automotive chip for vehicles called a “system-on-a-chip” or “SoC”. It aims to replace many individual vehicle processors.

Debuting its invention at an Amsterdam technology conference, the manufacturer indicated the new device, which it will market as “Xavier”, will comply with automotive standards while expediting advances in the use of automated vehicle camera technology. Other tech companies researching self-driving vehicles have sought to develop specialized platforms to help car makers design artificial intelligence components into vehicles more easily.

A Public Backlash

Few people like to consider the possibility of hackers hijacking a vehicle (literally) or spreading viruses capable of disrupting sophisticated navigation or remote sensing technology. Yet recently a Chinese security firm demonstrated it could hack into a Tesla Model S vehicle located 12 miles away. The testers managed to intercept the operation of electronic features, including the braking system, the dashboard screen display and even the electronic door locks! Imagine finding yourself locked inside your own vehicle because a hacker intercepts your auto’s computerized systems?

Indeed, some recent polls indicate reluctance on the part of most Americans to surrender the steering wheel completely to a self-driving car. Some 80% of respondents in one survey want to retain the option of humans assuming control over the vehicle, if necessary.

Anti-Hacking Measures

Meanwhile, a new startup called Karamba Security recently raised $2.5 million in seed money to begin developing and marketing technology to help secure automobiles against hackers. It produces technology that prevents foreign code from changing manufacturer settings on electronic control units, small computers located with many sophisticated automotive systems. The Israel-based firm believes its products will also hold great applicability for drones and industrial robots in the future.

With some automakers glibly assuming the public will consent to become passive passengers and not owners of autonomous vehicles, valid concerns about automotive hacking appear reasonable. In order to gain widespread acceptance for autonomous vehicles, self-driving car manufacturers will need to meet high standard for safety!

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