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Modern vehicles involve a lot of computer technology. So, it’s easy to see why some might fear that hackers could attack their vehicles. After all, hackers have gained access to supposedly impenetrable databases. Hackers compromise things like bank data, military info, and personal information every day. Unfortunately, the truth is that hackers definitely can hack your car’s computer. Worst of all, that means they can control anything that the computer controls.

Car hackers are already a very real thing

The interior of the Rivian R1T electric pickup truck where Gear Guard can be activated and used on the touchscreen
Rivian R1T touchscreen | Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to How Stuff Works, a disgruntled employee of a Texas-based dealership hacked into over 100 customer cars. After the dealership laid him off, the employee took to the vehicles’ computer systems. He then caused a ruckus at the expense of innocent customers. The employee could do everything from preventing their cars from starting to randomly setting off the car alarm. Annoyingly, he could also prevent owners from disabling the alarm by anything short of unplugging the vehicle’s battery.

Evidently, he was able to control these vehicles from the comfort of his own home. These vehicles were all equipped with a remote immobilizer system that is in place to disable financed vehicles if customers fail to make their payments.

Though this is concerning, it is evidently only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible with the hacking of a vehicle. It gets pretty scary once you dig into what systems a hacker could control.

Can you hack into a car and control it?

2022 Volkswagen ID.4 all-electric compact SUV interior dashboard and infotainment touchscreen setup
2022 Volkswagen ID.4 interior | Volkswagen of America, Inc. Newspress Limited

First and foremost, most vehicles are not susceptible to these types of attacks. Computers have been a part of vehicles for many decades now. However, they do not use any sort of outside connectivity. The vehicles that can potentially run into these types of issues, though, are wifi or network-equipped vehicles. Think vehicles that owners can control with their phones. That luxurious ability to start your car and set the climate control with a mobile app? Yep! Hackers could control that too if they got into the system.

Researchers from The University of Washington and The University of California at San Diego conducted a study in 2010. They were able to remotely control everything from the car’s heat and radio to its brakes. The latter, obviously, is a primary concern.

Damon Petraglia is the director of forensic and information security services at Chartstone Consulting. He has trained law enforcement officers in computer forensics and says that malware, or viruses, are a definite concern for automobiles.

“If your car is infected, then anything that the infected computer is responsible for is infected. So, if the computer controls the windows and locks, then the virus or malicious code can control the windows and locks,” said Petraglia.

He says that the same could be said about steering and braking systems, too. The thought of driving along a highway and having someone on the other side of the country suddenly start controlling your vehicle is pretty frightening

How concerned should you be about car computer viruses?

Red 2021 Tesla Model S Rolling Shot of Front Driver Side Fender
Tesla Model S | Telsa

According to Aryeh Goretsky, a researcher at a technology security company called ESET, you shouldn’t be too worried.

Goretsky states that creating a virus for a car computer is expensive because vehicle manufacturers have proprietary hardware and software. So, attackers could only target one specific make and model at a time.

“We always have to worry about risks every day, whether it’s using a computer or driving a car. The potential risk of a computer virus on an automobile would certainly not prevent me from buying one,” said Goretsky.

Of course, vehicle manufacturers of vehicles with outside-connection technology like wifi and mobile networks are well aware of these potential vulnerabilities. So, they are undoubtedly on top of ensuring that hacking their systems will not be an easy feat. That being said, nothing in this world is entirely unhackable. While the likelihood of these kinds of virus attacks is pretty low, it’s not impossible.


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