There are many, many futurecasts floating across the automotive interweb. Some, like fuel-cell technology and autonomous vehicles, have caught the public's attention and spawned countless news stories.
One that has largely failed to do so, however, involves the hacking of our increasingly computerized cars. Maybe that's because every demonstration of tinkering with onboard computers has seemed outrageously complicated and not really worth the trouble.
Case in point: a video report at Forbes.com, showing all the nasty things that bad guys (and gals) can do to a car that's been hacked. They can change the dashboard readouts so that it appears the driver has a full tank of gas, when in fact, he's nearing empty. They can make the car veer in one direction or the other, as if it's in self-park mode. They can cue the horn, disable the brakes, and more.
That's interesting, sure. But to make those things happen, the hackers basically had to take apart the car. Which is inconvenient, to say the least.
HACKING A CAR VS. HACKING A CAR NETWORK
Fans of the rebooted Battlestar Galactica series will probably remember the pilot episode, in which the Cylons hack nearly every ship in the Colonial Fleet, rendering them defenseless, sitting targets. Galactica's Commander Adama, however, knows the consequences of networked computers and refuses to allow such systems onboard Galactica -- which ultimately saves him and his crew from an early death.
Today's cars are a lot like Galactica (minus the FTL drives and unisex showers). They're closed environments. Their onboard computers don't typically speak to other computers, unless we want them to -- for example, when we take them in for diagnostic tests or software upgrades.
But tomorrow will be different. The arrival of autonomous cars and vehicle-to-vehicle technology will necessitate cars that talk to one another -- the creation of a network. And networks can always, always be hacked.
And that's where the real problem lies. The video above proves that today's hackers can tinker with individual cars, but to do that, they need access to a vehicle's onboard diagnostics port or some other way of interfacing with a car's computer. That's massively inconvenient, and it has little effect beyond the one targeted vehicle. Like most businesspeople, hackers want their hard work to have the broadest possible impact. And for that to happen, they'll need to wait just a bit.
Thankfully, we have time to prepare while they're waiting. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is already planning to launch a new division focused on cybercrime and cars. Auto companies are on the lookout, too. And of course, we'll have some help from the private sector (which will probably appear long before we truly need it).
Until the era of networked vehicles arrives, you probably don't have much to worry about. But if you open your car door one day to find the dashboard dismantled and two guys with laptops perched mischievously in the backseat, call the cops.