Can a vehicle’s computer system be remotely car hacked?

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The street sign warns drivers of an open canal ahead. A hacker is car hacking a vehicle to accelerate ahead.

Unscrupulous car hackers have found ways to make vehicles brake and accelerate against a driver's will. (Photo: Flickr)

While it may sound like science fiction to some, being car hacked might just be one of the first high-tech crimes to hit the expressway, reports Discover Magazine. With some knowledge of a modern vehicle’s computer system, a wireless Internet connection and the right software, hackers just might be able to take control of a vehicle’s functions from afar. That could include lights, braking, acceleration and possibly even steering, although the latter would likely be somewhat more difficult.  Needless to say, the mayhem of such car hacking could create dangerous situations.

Car hacked – Coming to a nightmare near you

Imagine what it might feel like to be car hacked. Let’s say you’re stuck on a gridlocked expressway in your brand new smart car that was purchased with a honey of an auto loan. A hacker sits on a nearby hillside with his Wi-Fi connected laptop or mobile device. He zeroes in on your car’s computer system and forces you to accelerate into the car in front of you. That’s a step beyond dealing with a sticky gas pedal, and researcher Stefan Savage insists that such a scenario could happen. A modern vehicle’s electronic control unit (ECU) controls many different functions throughout a car. According to BBC News, approximately 100 megabytes of code are spread across those ECUs. As Discover Magazine reports, that gives hackers numerous points of entry.

Savage has created a CarShark

Savage’s CarShark software demonstrated just how easy it can be to remotely gain access to car functions. For instance, common modern vehicle computer systems such as Electronic Stability Control and Active Cruise Control connect directly to brakes, accelerators, wheels and automated parallel parking. A hacker sending fake data into these systems could effectively take control of a car and cause a great deal of mischief or destruction, says Savage. While this isn’t easy to achieve, a sophisticated car hacking expert could gain access. Automakers will have to consider industrial strength firewalls in order to keep their customers safe, but even that won’t stop sufficiently motivated car hackers forever. They will continue to pursue car hacking or any other means of bleeding-edge public transportation that operates on a computer network, such as “road trains.”

The lighter side of car hacking

While entrepreneurs like Stefan Savage work on ways to combat car hacking, it’s amusing to know that some have used the technology in strange ways. According to a Wired blog, an Austin, Texas, auto dealership used just such a system to contact customers who were delinquent on their auto loan payments. They made the horns sound to annoy customers who were behind, which might not necessarily be safe in all situations. One employee of said Austin dealership was even fired when he made the cars of about 100 customers inoperable. This goes to show that automakers would probably be wise to lock down their vehicles’ computer systems to outside tampering.

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  1. armando on

    Read the original story you have plagiarized for this so-called news item. FIrst of all, you have to have some kind of hardware attached to the diagnostic port of the car. That means rigging up the right kind of connector. Second, the dealership in Austin used a commercially available device that is specifically used to disable the cars of deadbeats that didn't keep up their payments. Third, the employee had aleady been fired when he hacked into the deadbeat system to make the horns sound.

    • Steven Tarlow on


      First of all, your claim of plagiarism is incorrect. I cite both Discover Magazine and Wired as the sources of this information. If my name happened to be Discover Magazine or Wired, then I would be claiming the work as my own. However, it is not and I do not. That is how plagiarism works. Look it up in a dictionary sometime. Your accusations are borderline slander.

      Second, I did read the stories. As to whether I shall place the most credence in the story of professional journalists from Discover and Wired or Armando, I will pick the former over the slanderous words of somebody with an E-mail address (Hotmail, no less) that reads ‘cloppy.’