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Connected cars increase safety and convenience – and bring fresh cybersecurity concerns

minute read

    Most new cars today can alert you to traffic delays and safety hazards, share your driving habits with your auto insurer, and stream your kids’ favorite TV shows to a backseat screen — just to name a few common features.

    This trend toward so-called “connected cars” marks a significant shift in automotive technology. The first breakthrough came in 1996, when GM introduced OnStar services to contact emergency services in the event of an accident. Since then, connected cars have advanced tremendously.

    Consumers’ appetite for them has, too. Connected cars currently account for more than 90% of new cars and 97% of electric vehicles sold in the U.S.

    What is a connected car?

    Connected vehicles have a lot in common with your smart phone. They’re packed with hardware and software that allows them to be continuously connected to the internet and capable of exchanging information with other devices and systems. Most connected vehicle technology interfaces with a manufacturer’s app for uses like automatic power train updates. It’s also possible for them to connect with systems like your region’s power grid.

    Let's dive into some of connected cars' main features and risks, as well as how connectivity applies to another important innovation in the auto world: electric vehicles (EVs).

    Connected car features and convenience

    Connected cars offer a huge range of advantages not only for consumers, but also for businesses, government and regulatory bodies, and other organizations that impact daily life.

    For example, consider safety. A connected vehicle, whether it’s an EV or a traditional car, can:

    • Notify you of accidents, weather changes and other hazards ahead. Meanwhile, departments of transportation can better calibrate traffic lights and infrastructure decisions based on real-time traffic information flowing in from connected vehicles. This makes the roads safer for everyone.
    • Warn you of blind spots, proximity to other vehicles, and more, reducing the likelihood of fender benders or worse. Plus, you can use the car’s cameras as a live surveillance system or download an app to track its location should it be stolen.
    • Receive automatic updates to the car’s powertrain, ensuring that you're always using the latest (and safest) software. This also prevents the need for repairs and recalls.

    Automatic software updates are convenient as well. Without them, you’d have to take your car back to the dealer or into the shop much more frequently — which costs time and money. Other examples of increased convenience due to connectivity include the ability to:

    • Sync apps you use for music and entertainment with your car’s systems.
    • Receive service notifications so that you don’t have to keep track of them yourself.
    • Use your phone to lock and unlock the car, whether you’re nearby or not.
    • Find and visit places to shop and eat more easily, since information from connected cars can help business owners optimize their hours of operation and outreach based on trends in traffic volumes.

    Another major impact involves sustainability. Better data about traffic helps planners reduce congestion and travel times — which can, in turn, cut down on emissions.

    Connected car security

    As with most innovations, there’s a flip side to connected cars’ capabilities. The same technological complexity that makes them so exciting also opens them up to cyberattacks.

    Most connected cars house more than 100 million lines of software code — that’s more code than you find in an airplane or even a space shuttle. Those lines of code are largely “open source.” That means the code enabling cars’ connectivity wasn't created to address the specific security needs of connected cars. Plus, that code isn’t controlled or used exclusively by automakers; its use is widely distributed.

    That fact has major security implications. While an automaker may take pains to reduce vulnerabilities, others using the code might not. For example, maybe an infotainment company’s software that uses some of the same open-source code as your car is less secure, creating an opening for hackers.

    As a result, cyberattacks involving connected cars are on the rise. They made up over 50% of reported auto-related incidents in recent years. Most attacks use remote methods; instead of breaking into your car with a crowbar, criminals break into the car’s code. Types of attacks directly affecting consumers include:

    • Keyless entry or key fob car thefts
    • Personal data breaches
    • Ransomware demands that shut you out of your car until you pay hackers
    • Navigation system breaches that affect your ability to control the car

    Cyberattacks through connected vehicle technology also have the potential to affect not just individual drivers, but also the systems the cars rely on, such as traffic lights, charging stations and power grids.

    Connected vehicles and EVs

    What about connectivity’s impact on another big part of the auto industry’s future — electric vehicles?

    While connectivity affects all cars being manufactured today, EVs are typically more reliant on it than their gas-powered counterparts. It’s worth noting that:

    • The electronic control units (ECUs) in EVs heavily depend on connected vehicle technology to function properly. For example, a failsafe in EVs’ charging ECU will stop you from charging at incompatible stations.
    • Connectivity data is increasingly being used to address one of the main concerns about EVs: charging station infrastructure. Good decisions about how many stations to build — and where — hinge on information detailing EV drivers’ traffic patterns and needs.
    • Range is another pain point for EV drivers. But by monitoring data on battery flaws and the use of features that drain batteries (for example, air conditioning and electric windows), battery manufacturers can take targeted steps that advance batteries’ range and performance.

    How to protect against attacks

    Given the significant risks outlined above, many consumers favor the implementation of a national cybersecurity labeling system to better inform people’s buying decisions and spur protection efforts. In the meantime, here are a few things you can consider doing to protect yourself:

    • Disable in-car wireless services when you’re not using them. Wi-fi, Bluetooth, and satellite systems are all modern conveniences, but they are also a perfect point of entry for hackers. Consider disabling systems you don’t use regularly to decrease vulnerabilities.
    • Use only authorized apps. The more software and systems you use, the more points of entry for a hacker. Only install apps you will use, and apps that are approved/recommended by your manufacturer.
    • Update software regularly. Software updates are essential to fix bugs, improve performance, and enhance security. They can also prevent hackers from exploiting known flaws in the software.
    • Secure devices that are connected to your car. If your phone, tablet, or computer are connected to applications on your car, you should ensure your passwords are strong and updated regularly. Otherwise, if someone hacks your computer, they can hack your car, too.

    In summary

    Regardless of whether your connected car is gas-powered or electric, connectivity software is a game-changer. It brings increased safety and convenience – but also the increased risk of cyberattacks. Most experts agree that this will only become more evident as artificial intelligence and other technologies push vehicles’ capabilities even further.

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