Are we looking at a future of haunted cars?

20th Oct, 2020

Here’s what could happen. You’re driving down a long country road in the pitch black of night. (Maybe it’s one of Britain’s most haunted roads, who knows.) Without warning, an otherworldly force suddenly seizes control of the steering wheel. It wrenches itself back and forth as your car resists all efforts to bring it back under control. Your car doors unlock with a click, and the wind begins howling around you as the windows yawn open. The radio goes haywire, and the wipers flicker back and forth across your windscreen. You wrestle with the car as it continues hurtling into the night.

OK, so it seems ludicrous at first. Haunted cars? Nonsense. And yeah sure, we embellished it a bit, but to be honest, the truth isn’t much less dangerous. The jury’s still out on the existence of actual poltergeists, but tech experts will happily tell you about ghosts in the machine. We’ve already told you in a recent post about how cars are becoming less mechanical and more like computers, and as we all know, the trouble with computers is that they can be hacked. So could malicious actors really take control of your car? And if so, how can this be prevented? These are the questions that the automotive industry is currently grappling with, and right now it doesn’t look like there are easy answers.

How could hackers seize control of cars?

Basically, the big problem is that for cars to become more intelligent, they need to become more complex, and the more complex they become, the more vulnerabilities they can potentially develop.

The first thing that probably springs to mind is the interior function and critical systems of the car. Let’s be honest, even something as simple as a hacked climate control system could make driving the car deeply unpleasant, even if you were in otherwise full control over it. And it doesn’t bear thinking about if that same hacker was able to do something like starting or stopping your engine, or affecting your accelerator or brakes.

But those are just the most obvious routes. Some attacks could be rather more subtle – but no less terrifying – by messing with the car’s perception of the world around it. You see, self-driving cars need to have their own ‘senses’ in order to safely navigate themselves around obstacles and other vehicles. Companies like Tesla and Cadillac have already manufactured vehicles which can autonomously change lanes and use the internet to communicate with each other, keeping their distance from other vehicles and adhering to traffic signals.

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So that begs the question: what if someone was able to exploit a software vulnerability in a self-driving car, and affect these senses?

A common technique that manufacturers are already preparing for is GPS and LIDAR spoofing, which involves basically tricking the car into thinking the road is laid out differently than it actually is in reality. Or, its senses may be scrambled to the point that it’s detecting things that aren’t really there. In other words, your car could be the one ‘seeing ghosts’.

Alternatively, a hacker could remotely activate features like vehicle tracking, which means they’d know the car’s every movement. We’ve already talked about how your car probably knows a surprising amount about you, so if it’s hacked, someone else could have access to all that precious driver data. Essentially, it’s like your car gets ‘possessed’ by a malevolent force. And just like in the movies – that means that everything it knows, they know.

Hackers might even be able to take control of autonomous cars on a mass scale, hijacking massive amounts of vehicles at once. Tesla boss Elon Musk has mentioned a hypothetical example in which a group of hackers take control of thousands of navigational systems at once, redirecting whole fleets of autonomous cars to Rhode Island as a prank. Scary to think that even one of the more harmless examples involves waves upon waves of vehicles mindlessly lumbering towards a single destination, like a brand-new iteration of the walking dead.

So how are we fighting the ghosts in the machine?

Now, here at Scrap Car Network, we don’t necessarily have the tech expertise to know how these attacks can be performed, or how they can be defended against. But thankfully, the people who do are already hard at work thinking about the solutions to these sorts of problems.

The French government funded Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission has already produced a system which it says can block software attacks that aim to scramble the car’s senses, such as those we’ve detailed above. And ethical hackers all over the world are being invited to attack newer cars so that manufacturers can pre-emptively work out their vulnerabilities, and what can be done about them.

One such ethical hacker, information security researcher Charlie Miller, has said that “by reducing the amount of attackable code, we make the vehicle more secure and eliminate concerns about the inherent problems of code dealing with potentially malicious inbound data”. In other words, the cars with the most efficient designs will the ones that are probably the most secure.

A big focus for manufacturers will be “Over the Air” software updates, which the car will receive wirelessly. Part of their job will be to make sure that the car continues to be safe and secure. If you think about the the antivirus updates you get for your computer, the underlying concept is basically the same, although some manufacturers have been quick to reassure potential buyers and investors that these OTA updates will be ‘a different level’ to what we have in our computers and laptops today.

Even so, some OTA updates might be vulnerable to ‘man in the middle’ attacks, in which hackers intercept the updates while they’re in transit. Therefore, they’re obviously a big security focus for manufacturers at the moment, and will be a permanent priority going forward.

We could go on, but the reality is that driving an autonomous car in future is likely to involve a trade-off between risk and reward. But then again, when you think about all the accidents that happen on UK roads each year, when has that never not been the case?

And of course, if you’re ever involved in such an accident yourself, you can count on us here at Scrap Car Network to be able to help you scrap your car for maximum amounts of cash, whether it’s petrol or diesel, dumb or autonomous, or powered on magic and dreams. Chances are if you can drive it, we can scrap it.

It’s never been easier to get your own instant online quote – all you have to do is enter your car reg and postcode into the fields on our site, and we’ll get you your online quote before you can say scrap my car. Curious to find out how much yours is worth?

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