Could Hackers Take Over Your Car Via Its Computers?

<b class="credit">Fiat Chrysler</b>As this Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat's dashboard shows, the latest cars include complex computers. That has experts worrying about a new threat to the auto industry: hackers.
Fiat ChryslerAs this Dodge Charger SRT Hellcat's dashboard shows, the latest cars include complex computers. That has experts worrying about a new threat to the auto industry: hackers.

Modern cars are full of software. But are they safe from hackers?

That's a question a lot of experts are asking right now, and the answers aren't always reassuring. At a conference hosted by the Center for Automotive Research recently, several industry experts said that the latest high-tech cars have become tempting targets for hackers -- but the industry is determined to fight back.

Today's Cars Are Very Vulnerable, but the Threat Is Still Low

Current cars are vulnerable to attacks, according to Andrew Brown, chief technologist at giant auto-industry supplier Delphi (DLPH). In his presentation at the conference, Brown noted that the computers in a modern high-end car have about 100 million lines of computer code -- more than in a Boeing 787 airliner.

That number could double or even triple over the next few years, he said, as vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems and more self-driving features come to market. All of that code needs to be protected -- lest a hacker manage to take charge of a vehicle, possibly using a wireless device.

This isn't just a hypothetical threat. At a hackathon sponsored by Delphi last year, a 14-year-old using a circuit board built from some inexpensive parts managed to crack a new car's security.

It's not a big threat right now. But the concern is that as cars become more interconnected, a hacker could use a compromised vehicle to access other vehicles, the traffic infrastructure -- or even financial networks.

IBM (IBM) executive Brett Hillhouse, who specializes in the emerging Internet of things (how all our tech stuff is inter-connected), noted in his presentation that a hacker can "infiltrate" almost any electronic control unit, via any of several wireless access points -- and could, theoretically, make a car very unsafe using a radio device.

Studies have shown that these attacks could be carried out quite easily by hacker standards, he said. That's why the industry is moving to get a lot better at securing those on-board computers.

Cars Could Communicate With Each Other

Automakers have been building increasingly sophisticated computers into cars for decades. Why are these security concerns only starting to receive attention now?

Apparently, it's because there haven't been very many people inside automakers or key suppliers who have computer-security expertise. The people who write all of this software code for cars tend to be electrical engineers, who are good at coming up with algorithms -- but unlike software engineers, they aren't trained in building computer systems to the latest standards.

But now, the industry, encouraged by the U.S. and other governments, is moving toward systems that will allow cars to communicate with one another and with the traffic infrastructure. Why? Because there are huge safety advantages: If your car's computer brain knows that the driver in front of you just slammed on the brakes, for example, it can react faster than you can -- perhaps fast enough to prevent an accident.

More Complex -- but More Secure -- Systems Are Coming

While self-driving cars are likely still years away, the first of these "vehicle-to-vehicle" and "vehicle-to-infrastructure" systems are likely to hit the market in the next year or two. Mercedes-Benz and General Motors (GM) are known to be making major investments in the technology, and other automakers are almost certainly preparing to follow suit.

The increasing interconnectedness of cars makes hacking a potentially huge problem. But the industry's increasing focus on improving the security of in-car systems now should help head off that problem as cars become more interconnected in coming years.

Motley Fool contributor John Rosevear owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of International Business Machines. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. Looking to invest in the latest new tech? Check out our free report on the Apple Watch to learn where the real money is to be made for early investors.​