Many carmakers are adopting ‘over the air’ (OTA) software for their increasingly connected and autonomous cars. Does this mean that there is increase in the risk of hacker hijackers?

Two years ago, hackers showed that they could remotely take control of a Chrysler Jeep. Earlier this year, Tesla boss Elon Musk warned about the dangers of hackers potentially taking control of thousands of driverless cars. Speaking at a National Governors Association meeting he said, ‘ I think one of the biggest concerns for autonomous vehicles is somebody achieving a fleet-wide hack. In principle, if someone was to hack all the autonomous Teslas they could send them all to Rhode Island as a prank. That would be the end of Tesla, and there would be a lot of angry people in Rhode Island.’

Mr Musk was quick to insist that a kill switch would ensure that the driver was able to gain control of the car and cut any links to the servers.

As cars become more sophisticated, incorporating features such as lane keeping, automatic braking and self parking, their systems are connected to the internet and the amount of software needed to control these systems is increasing. Also, It is much easier to use online updates – rather than repair-shop visits – for both automakers and customers.

OTA updates give manufacturers the ability to respond quickly as problems arise. Chrysler was criticised for sending out USB sticks with updates to patch the Jeep. Critics pointed out that criminals could easily intercept the USB sticks and infect them with malware.

Research consultancy IHS Markit estimates that by 2022, 160 million vehicles globally will have the capability to upgrade their onboard computer systems over the air.

‘Ultimately, as cars have become more connected, it does potentially create a bigger target and hackers have always altered their techniques as technology changes,’ said Robert Moran, an expert in car connectivity and security at NXP Semiconductors. ‘The fact that we can provide over-the-air updates is a security feature in itself, as it gives us the ability to respond and make changes’

Consumer trust is crucial, so security is paramount.

www.bbc.co.uk./technews (6th October)