Some Quick Thoughts on Automotive Technology

DISCLAIMER: This post is just a chance to think out loud with you all a bit.  I’ve pondered the matter previously for about a grand total of 5 minutes.

I just read an article over on Quartz about the fact that Tesla Motors just turned its first profit.  Good for them!  As a car guy and a tree hugger1, I’m excited to see the electric car industry succeed.  Not only do electric cars produce less green house gas, but from what I understand, the torque that comes out of these electric motors is massive and instantaneous.  This bodes well for Bat Out of Hell Grade acceleration.  Few things are more satisfying than stomping the little pedal on the right and getting jammed into the back of your seat.  Also, I’m led to believe that the batteries tend to sit low in the chassis providing a ridiculously low center of gravity enabling spectacular performance in the corners.  Other than the price and current range restrictions, there’s not much to dislike about an electric car.  At least from a performance perspective.

The area that makes me nervous is the increasing use of technology in vehicles.  I’m sure many of you have seen the Buick commercials with the family starting its car from the plane after it has landed.  OnStar can unlock your cars remotely.  Flow is selling us black boxes for our cars to reduce our insurance premiums.  On-board navigation is just about ubiquitous.  As the technology adopt these technologies we’re making a tradeoff and I’m not sure that tradeoff is widely understood. 

Each one of those technologies I just mentioned has a software weakness.  That is an educated guess, but based on my observations of the software development process in many organizations, there will be a weakness somewhere.  Case in point is the “determined hacker” who cracked the RDS-TMC encryption algorithm with a pencil and note pad.  She gets free navigation service when she eventually buys a car.  Not a great example in terms of financial loss, but it does speak to the resistance strength of one particular technology and it makes me wonder how the other technologies compare.

Could an attacker exploit the mobile app controlling your Buick to kill your engine in the middle of the highway?  Can Flow get subpoenaed by your spouse for GPS coordinates if they suspect you are cheating?  How about your employer for that matter if they are investigating a worker’s compensation claim?  Could there be cross over into physical crime that enables a mugger to lock your car doors to prevent your escape?  I don’t know the answers to these questions, but their answers could have a big impact for many people given the role cars play in society.

Has anyone else thought about the issue of software weaknesses in vehicles?  Am I getting my knickers in a twist over nothing?  Is this a reasonable concern to have?  Hit me in the comments to discuss further.

 

1 I am an advocate of protecting nature and the environment.  I also believe that we have a symbiotic relationship with the world around us.  The more we abuse the environment, the more we abuse ourselves in the long run.

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