The combination of the advancement of computer technology in vehicles and the odd circumstances which led to the death of noted journalist Michael Hastings in June 2013 have caused many people to suspect that cars can be hacked into much like computers.
With the number of Tesla and other electric vehicles on the street, is this problem getting worse?
The very idea that a car can be hacked is actually not as novel as it sounds. Such theories have actually been floating around the internet for years that cars can be hacked. The real question is, if a car’s computer systems has been hacked, how often has it taken place?
What is Car Hacking?
Essentially, car hacking is the takeover of the car’s electronic systems by an outside computer. While the computer systems installed in vehicles are far less sophisticated than a CPU or laptop, they still operate and run specific devices inside the car or truck.
The theory is that a person armed with a computer or even a mobile device that can transmit into a car’s computer system can take over the functions and create a dangerous situation that can cause acceleration and a high speed crash.
Until recently, car hacking was the subject of science fiction or horror films and novels. Today, with the death of journalist Michael Hastings, people are beginning to question whether car hacking is now a reality. And if so, was Hastings the first victim or simply one in a series that has yet to be identified.
Can a Vehicle be Hacked?
The answer is yes. A vehicle has computer components that run many of the basic functions of the vehicle. Depending on the nature of the vehicle and the amount of electronics installed, a vehicle can certainly be hacked from an outside source.
Official research conducted by the University of Washington, and the University of California-San Diego, in 2011, named “How to Hack cars“, shows how a car can be potentially hacked into.
A hacking can enable a person from a remote location to control the car’s radio to disabling the brakes or cause an acceleration to occur, thus leaving the driver out of control of the vehicle. However, the steering wheel is still a direct connection that is not computer controlled, so the hacking should not affect the direction of the vehicle unless high speeds are reached, brakes are engaged or the vehicle goes off-road or encounters rough conditions.
Has Car Hacking Really Occurred?
The knowledge of how to hack into a vehicle is nothing new. Articles in such publications as Car and Driver for example date back to 2011 which explain that car hacking is now a technological fact, even though there have been no reported incidents.
In the case of Michael Hastings, the circumstances of his death certainly fit the general profile of a car hacking incident. Hastings was driving his 2013 Mercedes C250 coupe when it crashed into a tree along Highland Avenue in Los Angeles at approximately 4:30am. Video taken at the scene of the crash showed the remains of the car on fire and witnesses told of hearing an explosion. Apparently, the impact was so violent that the car’s engine was thrown over 50 yards away from the impact site.
The crash was so violent and the resulting fire so complete that it took the Los Angeles County coroner’s office two days just to positively identify Hastings’ body. Hastings himself was a controversial figure who practiced a type of no-holds journalism that could certainly anger powerful people. In addition, Hastings himself stated a few days before his death that his story on Jill Kelly, a person involved in the General Petraeus scandal, that he feared investigation from the FBI.
Whether Michael Hastings’ car was actually hacked may never be known. The damage was so severe that the computer system was destroyed. But even if the computers were not destroyed, knowing if they were hacked or not can be very difficult to determine. In addition, many law enforcement agencies do not have the capabilities to determine if cars have been hacked or not.
While the exact circumstances of the Hastings’ case may never be fully known, it is also true that single car accidents of the nature that killed Hastings are also quite common, which basically means that such accidents occur with a frequency which will hide the true nature of the crash. It will take a clear, unambiguous incident to prove whether a car has been hacked, creating an accident. The fact that such hacking conditions have been theoretical for some time certainly means that testing has occurred, but perhaps to prevent the knowledge of how to hack a car from spreading, such tests may have been kept secret.
In conclusion, car hacking is certainly a real possibility that may be proven in future incidents, depending on the circumstances and evidence. The very real possibility that a determined hacker can commit a nearly perfect crime that cannot be traced is certainly enough to warrant a great deal of concern from the auto industry. While safeguards have been put into place, even the best security cannot prevent a determined hacker from gaining access.