Should You Buy a Connected Car?

Category: Auto

Computer sales are moribund; tablet sales are tanking; even iPhone sales are slowing down. Hardware makers are desperate to find The Next Big Thing to reignite their revenue growth, and they think they have found it. They’re going to connect everything! But do you really want your car connected to the Internet? Read on...

Should Your Car Be On the Information Superhighway?

Back in the early 90's, it was common to refer to the Internet as the "Information Superhighway," and "travel" from one website to another via your desktop computer. But now, you can actually visit websites *with* your car, while traveling on a real superhighway. It seems everything is being connected, but are we really ready for that?

From coffee pots to cars, the Internet of Things is that Next Big Thing that is being relentlessly pushed upon us from every direction. A coffee pot that can be controlled remotely is one thing, but a car? I don’t know if I would buy a so-called “connected” car given the current state of their security.

Let's start with a definition: a "connected" car is one that can communicate interactively with systems other than its own internal ones, e.g., smartphones, computers, cellular towers, GPS, and the Internet.

Connected Cars - Safe?

Just over a year ago, a reporter for Wired magazine wrote about the terrifying experience of having hackers take control of a Jeep - while he was driving it! The air conditioning came on full blast. Windshield wiper fluid sprayed unbidden, The radio blasted at top volume. The on-board digital display showed the two hackers, laughing.

And then things got serious. The transmission was disabled and the driver could no longer control the accelerator. Then the brakes were disabled and the Jeep ended up in a ditch.

Fortunately, this was a test; the attack stopped short of being fatal, but it very well could have been. Chrysler had to download firmware updates to nearly 2 million vehicles to prevent a real catastrophe that would, no doubt, have put the company in greater legal jeopardy than Volkswagen. People - a lot of people - could have died.

Are Connected Cars Vulnerable?

In February, 2016, white-hat hackers demonstrated a vulnerability in the Nissan Leaf electric car that allowed them to take control of non-critical systems such as climate control and entertainment systems.

In June, 2016, the Mitsubishi Outlander’s on-board WiFi access point - essentially, a wireless router like the one you have at home - proved vulnerable. Mitsubishi recommends that owners disable the access point until a patch is created.

“When you start thinking about a car, you quickly realise the integrity and vulnerability threats are much worse than confidentiality threats and there's real risks to life and property here," legendary security expert Bruce Schneier told the recent InfoSecurity Europe conference in London.

“It'd be really bad -- and it'll happen in a year or two -- when someone figures out how to apply ransomware to the CPUs of cars,” he continued. “That's not going to be fun, but as long as there are computers it'll happen.”

Imagine your $60,000 car sitting there in the garage, completely useless, while the screen in its console displays instructions for paying $500 in Bitcoins to an unknown hacker in a dark corner of the Internet.

More Focus on Safety and Security is Needed

The problem is that computer security is still an alien concept to auto manufacturers. Some of them don’t see what the big deal is if a hacker can adjust the volume of your car’s radio. “Mission-critical” computers that control brakes, accelerator, transmissions, etc., are totally isolated from these “options,” they assure us. But as the Wired reporter discovered, that’s no guarantee of safety.

The advent of self-driving, or "autonomous" cars is a related concern. It's encouraging that Google's self-driving cars have driven more than 1.5 million miles with no fatalities and only one minor accident. But a recent story about a fatal accident involving a Tesla Model S operating in "Autopilot Mode" does give me pause. There was no foul play or hacking involved in this case, but still it tells me that we've not yet reached a point in time when we can fully trust in technology such as connected and/or autonomous vehicles.

Security is a full-time, pervasive, top-to-bottom and end-to-end mindset. Whether it's the engine or the “accessory charger” (formerly known as a “cigarette lighter") it must be considered a potential backdoor into the most life-threatening parts of a car. And auto makers don’t have this mindset.

I think I will wait until they do, which will probably be a decade after dozens of people die and some company is hit with a multi-billion-dollar judgment. Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Should You Buy a Connected Car?"

(See all 28 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

Mike Higgins
11 Jul 2016

What would the equivalent of 'denial of service' attacks using thousands of cars instead of computers look like?...especially in the hands of terrorists! All major roads blocked in many or all major cities during a 9-11 type of attack? Using these vehicles to attack whomever/whatever...

Posted by:

Roy Adams
11 Jul 2016

I saw a prophetic movie released by the Disney Channel (of all places)named WALL-E. The movie is about a space ship loaded with extremely fat humans who depend upon robotos for eveything from moving from point A to point B to robots simulating physical exercise while the human sat idle on a chair/table. A "throw-back" botor got loose on the spaceship, made friends with one of the modern robots and lead a revolt against the master controlling robot leading to the human landing back on an environmentally disasterous Earth. While the "thro-bots" theme is good in the movie, can you imagine a group of thugs like the drug cartels or a street gang getting control of your car with you/family in it, killing your phone servcie, locking your car's doors and steering your vehicle to a location where they can do whatever their evil hearts desire without fear of being seen or interfered with? I'll pass on AI cars.

Posted by:

11 Jul 2016

No, absolutely not. There are enough sloppy drivers on the road, and boggles the mind to think that when you buy and venture out in one of those vehicles/robots that you are then trusting your life to the all-knowing-idiogeeks who probably have never driven in snow, on ice, in white out rainstorms or winds that can blow you off the road and do not know how to make the necessary corrections to continue on safely or have never paid real attention to the idiot opposition on the road. No, absolutely not.

Posted by:

Fussy Old Man
11 Jul 2016

I want to drive the car myself. If I buy it its mine isn't it? Can we decrapify a new car similar to the way we decrapify a new computer? If I want tech I'll go to the Apple store not a car dealer.

Posted by:

11 Jul 2016

Truth is, people are not safe drivers. Nor are they efficient drivers. Even the best will be bettered in the foreseeable future by "dumb" machines. Sorry folks - you're on the wrong side of history, and science, and economics, and progress, and ...

Posted by:

11 Jul 2016

I won't be buying a connected car and I can sum it up in 3 words: HACK, HACK, & HACK.

Posted by:

Top Squirrel
11 Jul 2016

WALL-E, the movie, was a great film, though animated, but although I saw it maybe 8 years ago, my recollection of the plot line differs from Roy Adams' recollection.
I will copy an imdb plot summary below.
WALL-E is a garbage robot who has developed many endearing human characteristics. To amuse himself he starts building a house out of all the cubes of garbage he has compressed. And he cares about his insect friend.
He did fall in love with Eva, the cute and deceptively powerful robot there to see if any life has re-emerged on Earth. Eva flips over a weed WALL-E shows her as a curiosity.
Here's the summary:
"In the distant future, humans abandon Earth because there is too much trash on it. WALL-E, with habit of picking up everything he finds interesting, lives alone on the planet with a pet cockroach. He has quite a collection of things, from lighters to a working iPod and even a small ring box (without the ring). He even has the last living plant. When a spaceship comes to earth and drops a sleek and dangerous probe EVE to look for a living plant, WALL-E falls in love with her. WALL-E gives her the plant, which makes EVE go into sleep mode. When a spaceship comes to take EVE back, WALL-E too goes with her. What follows is an adventure onboard the Axiom, where people move on hovering chairs and get liquid food which they suck up through a straw. Due to laziness, they have become so fat that they are unable to move. Due to hastily given instructions given to it, auto, the autopilot it tries to get rid of the plant which compels WALL-E, EVE, the pilot and some malfunctioning robots to find a way to retrieve the plant and save the earth."

If you haven't seen it try and download it; it's fun. And no Disney flick will have an ending that has viewers go away depressed that goodness lost. WALL-E's a very endearing character who by the human characteristics he has developed, implies no matter how garbagey things are programmed to be, the best of humanity, like weeds, keeps popping up.

Posted by:

Jay R
11 Jul 2016

This was the only time in memory that I have had no desire to read your article.

I know the answer like it was tattooed on my forehead.

Besides, I have my phone so Google will always know the address I am trying to find so that they can send me some ADS!!!!!!

Maybe I will reconsider after they outlaw cash.

Posted by:

11 Jul 2016

EMP, anyone?

Posted by:

Old Man
11 Jul 2016

Anyone remember Kitt from the Knight Rider series? At the time, everyone who saw or heard about the series wanted one. Some bought expensive remote systems that controlled the locks, windows, and even started/stopped the engine. One car I saw had a sequential red light bar installed in the grill.

It would really be nice to have a car that would drop you off at a store's entrance, find its own parking space, and come back when your were finished shopping. Kitt became so sophisticated that it could even carry on a conversation with the driver.

At the time, the greatest threat to the Internet was unwanted p**no. Then someone found a way to hack into systems and ruined everything.

Yes, a car like that would be really nice - if someone could find a way to make it hack-proof. Until then, I'll pass. It's enough hassle just trying to protect my home computer without having to worry about a bunch of other Internet-connected items [oven go to self-clean when you are making a casserole, refrigerator shut down spoiling everything inside, microwave start when there is nothing in it, toaster being changed from light to charred, heater kick in when it's 90 or the air conditioner run when it's below zero, ... No Thank You].

Posted by:

12 Jul 2016

BobM, some people don't drive to "efficiently" get to a specific locale, they drive for the sheer pleasure of it, and on a sunny day might spend hours meandering about. My younger brother is exactly like that. Since he starts off without a known destination he can't make use of any computerized program that wants to plot his course. Is he to be denied this pleasure because Google or Tesla want to give him their idea of a better ride?
I'm getting to the point where I can foresee a motorized golf cart parked in front of a small senior citizen apartment. Hopefully that is still a decade away but you never know... I do believe that if the day comes when "they" take the keys to the golf cart away from me, then at that point I probably should not be outdoors without supervision. Until then, I drive!

Posted by:

Maura K
12 Jul 2016

Having been a coder (with you, Bob!) I know that despite the most scrupulous review, no code will be perfect. Hence I am highly skeptical of the safety of self-driving cars or the wisdom of having everything connected. I can't bring myself to trust in it totally.

Posted by:

12 Jul 2016

What's the point? What's the benefit to me? We keep hearing about distracted driving and how dangerous it is. Why can't we concentrate on driving and leave all the connectivity to your home or business where you might need a small percentage of the connectivity you now have. All of this at the end of the day comes down to how much money companies can make off your data or by selling you data. Whether it's just the cost of bandwidth or some other form, they aren't doing this for your benefit, it's for money. It's amazing how people managed to survive in the pre-smartphone era. If you don't update your social apps in the next five minutes, your "friends" might forget that you exist.

Posted by:

12 Jul 2016

Good article on the corporate state mind. I wounder how we got this far without it. I concur with many of the blogs and do remember when I had no set destination and a love for the road,fresh air wind in my long hair back then. Today's generations have little knowledge of being disconnected and free.
Thanks, Phil

Posted by:

12 Jul 2016

We need to allow the killing of hackers once identified. There is nothing that deters crime, like the death of criminals.

Posted by:

Ron B
12 Jul 2016

Top Squirrel, re GPS, my wife and I call it "Lady Map" because it has a female voice and can't navigate.

Posted by:

12 Jul 2016

This could lead to the police hacking into your car computer and checking your speed from their office then mailing you a ticket.

Posted by:

13 Jul 2016

I won't be buying a connected car until somebody makes one in which the computers which control the car's driving systems are isolated from the computers which talk to the outside world. Who are the retards who 'thought' (and I'm using the word very loosely here) that giving outside agencies access to engine and transmission control, steering, braking, etc. lived in the same galaxy as 'good idea'?

Posted by:

Howard L
16 Jul 2016

The world was a better place when cars had running boards and vent windows -- and no GPS.

Last winter I rented a house in Tucson, AZ. A talking GPS nearly drove me nuts until I figured out how to shut it off.

The GPS was possibly useful the first two or three times I had to navigate through a new neighborhood. Thereafter the voice would continue telling me to turn right, turn left, stop, etc., all information that any competent driver would learn in short order.

When I was in Death Valley National Park there was a ranger talk called "101 Ways to Die in Death Valley." Most had to do with extreme heat and getting lost. There's a new one: excessively relying on a GPS. Visitors were driving off cliffs rather than doubt the machine.

Posted by:

24 Jul 2016

What fathead thinks it's OK to connect a car's control mechanisms to anything outside the car?
Are car companies hiring children?

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