Autonomous vehicles promise to be extraordinarily safer than human drivers because ninety-four percent of crashes can be attributed to human error. However, a less discussed danger is the threat of data breaches and other nefarious electronic hacking of cars as they increase in technological sophistication. Wikileaks recently released documents showing the intelligence community has explored how to assassinate people by hacking their car. Already, cars have had to be recalled because hackers found vulnerabilities which allowed them to control the braking and acceleration functions of the vehicles. While the societal costs associated with crashes, including healthcare, lost wages, and productivity, will decrease, the data that will be associated with cars will be a treasure trove for potential bad actors. Already cars are equipped with Event Data Recorders (EDRs) which record data from the car on everything from speed and brake pedal use to whether the seatbelts are buckled. This data is used by the car itself to properly deploy airbags when needed. However, automated vehicles, or even high-tech normal cars, will likely need data on voice commands, weight of passengers, geographic location, and possibly facial recognition of passengers. These types of data from always-on monitors have already proven to be contentious privacy issues with the recent high-profile case regarding Amazon’s Alexa’s voice recordings.

Currently, there are no set standards for data security in vehicles. Devices such as Progressive’s Snapshot dongle have been shown to be vulnerable to relatively simple electronic hacks. Thankfully, government regulation may be catching up to current technology and preparing for future implementations. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a trio of reports relating to: autonomous vehicles, cybersecurity in vehicles, and vehicle to vehicle communication. Autonomous vehicles are, possibly obviously, cars that can drive themselves without human input, but also included in the regulatory scheme are cars that are less than fully autonomous because almost all cars these days have some sort of computer in them. Vehicle to Vehicle Communication is a related technology that would allow vehicles to transmit relevant information to nearby vehicles in order to improve safety and avoid collisions. The NHTSA outlines current best practices for cybersecurity used in other contexts and how to further develop industry standards tailored to the nature of motor vehicles and vehicle to vehicle communication, and has initiated rulemaking procedures to create the needed regulations. These steps are a good first start to regulating these advanced technologies.

–J. David Clark


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