What Automakers Are Doing to Address Digital Security

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

As I’ve written several times before, fears of people currently hacking into cars are largely unfounded, but as more vehicles offer features that connect them to the outside world, the risk of car hacking is becoming much more real. The biggest challenge is going to come when vehicles are legally required to be able to communicate with each other.

With so many cars sending and receiving information, the potential for someone to intercept or interfere with that communication absolutely exists. Whether someone is able to simply track the location of another person, send false messages to cars, or even remotely take control of that person’s vehicle, a security breach could cause chaos. Because of the inherent risk, making sure vehicle-to-vehicle communications are secure is incredibly important.

Automakers haven’t always made digital security a top priority, but as the Wall Street Journal reports, a group of eight of them are working together as part of what’s known as Crash Avoidance Metrics Partnership, or CAMP. Members include Ford, General Motors, Nissan, Mazda, Honda, Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, and Hyundai.

They’re working on a system that will make V2V communication as secure as possible, and the basis for what they’re developing is not all that different than what’s used for secure web browsing. Known as public key infrastructure, or PKI, encoded information is paired with a private digital key that the receiver can then decrypt with a public key to verify the sender’s identity. The security credentials sent with each message are called certificates.

When the system is eventually in place, vehicles will communicate with each other using short range communications technology similar to Wi-Fi that automakers have been working on for years. Speed and location data will be exchanged with other vehicles within 1,000 feet, allowing drivers to receive information about others on the road. It will also increase the effectiveness of safety systems like adaptive cruise control and emergency braking.

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

With more than 30,000 crash-related deaths in the U.S. each year, adding secure V2V communication technology to new cars has the potential to save thousands of lives. Not only could drivers be warned of danger before they see or hear it, they could also be given information they might not have had access to otherwise. If a driver is about to run a red light, for example, the system could warn others. It would work best, though, if all cars on the road were equipped with the same system.

A number of security breaches in the past have shown that PKI isn’t impenetrable, but no system will ever be perfect. Perhaps the biggest challenge is going to be making sure it can handle the specific security needs of a nationwide network that will need to eventually support hundreds of millions of vehicles.

“The unique challenge that is addressed in the CAMP security system is: Developing a system which meets the security technical requirements while also satisfying the privacy goals,” said Michael Shulman, the program manager for CAMP’s Vehicle Safety Communications Consortium and a technical leader at Ford. “Other PKI systems, such as the system in operation by the Department of Defense, do not have the same privacy goals.”

Managing such a large system that places a high value on privacy is going to be difficult. Even on smaller scale systems, mistakes happen. If the problem is with sending an email, it’s frustrating but ultimately not that big of a deal. If it happens between two vehicles at 85 miles per hour, the consequences could be much more serious.

Automakers are confident they can handle the challenges, though, and Cadillac is already planning to offer V2V technology in the 2017 CTS.

With a mandate on V2V technology coming soon, it’s encouraging to see automakers taking digital security more seriously. There are certainly risks involved, but if it’s done right, a fully-integrated V2V communications system has the potential to make driving significantly safer. As long as it’s secure enough to withstand attacks, a system that keeps the roads safer is a very good thing.

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