CONNECTED CARS: Is your internet-enabled vehicle safe from hackers?

By Pritesh Ruthun Time of article published Jun 30, 2021

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JOHANNESBURG - While the internet has only been with us for 38 years (1 January 1983 is considered its official birthday), it has totally changed life as we know it. Two thirds of the world’s population – 5.27 billion people – have a mobile device. And connectivity is the name of the game. From a motoring perspective, this has a number of connotations – good, bad and ugly.

Let’s get the “ugly” out of the way first. In a worst-case scenario, hackers could take control of your car and stop the brakes from working. No, this is not Hocus Pocus. Back in 2015 already, Wired famously published an article titled “Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway – With Me in It”. The story relates how hackers took control of a Jeep Cherokee – deactivating the accelerator and transmission. Yes, of course, they could have taken control of the brakes too. “All of this is possible only because Chrysler, like practically all carmakers, is doing its best to turn the modern automobile into a smartphone,” the writer of the article, Andy Greenberg, explained.

Of course, the bad news is that, while a hacker can access a car, the same person can also access a motorist’s personal data gathered by the car. That data can range from anything and everything from average speed travelled to personal accounts established by the vehicle owner.

The good news, however, is that there are big advantages to connectivity. Connected vehicles offer better communication (between vehicles and road users alike), real-time traffic information, navigation, in-car infotainment, and enhanced fuel efficiency. Very importantly in South Africa, connectivity can also help to keep the driver and passengers safe. Thanks to connectivity, tracking companies can warn drivers that they’re entering areas that are known for hijacking, for instance.

Bearing this in mind, George Mienie, AutoTrader SA CEO, says that motorists should not fear connectivity. “The benefits far outweigh the negatives,” he points out. “Also, it’s important to bear in mind the fact that motor manufacturers are very cognisant of these issues and, just like software companies, they’re constantly introducing new measures to improve security.”

Dr Hans Geesmann, a German physicist who specialises in information technology, concurs. “Motorists need to be sensible and treat their cars like they treat their computers; don’t put USB sticks or SD cards from unknown sources into your car’s interface. Ensure that your car’s software systems are fully updated. Don’t give unknown persons access to your car’s Wi-Fi,” he suggests.

Mienie also recommends only downloading official apps from Google’s and Apple’s digital app stores. “They should be less risky since Google and Apple provide layers of protection to help avoid known malware. Also, before selling your car, wipe it clean – like you would with a computer or mobile phone. You should ensure that you remove all of your personal data from the vehicle; you don’t want to provide the next owner – or someone else for that matter – with all that data,” adds Mienie.

But, above all, there is no need to panic. “The most qualified experts in the world are addressing this issue. I look forward to the future… and sitting and relaxing while my connected car drives me home … autonomously and safely,” Dr Geesmann concludes.

SIDEBAR: OVER THE AIR UPDATES AND DATA

It won’t be long before going to a car dealer’s workshop, for a software update, will seem quaint. That’s right – your car uses increasingly complex software that needs occasional updates. In the past, these were only performed when your car goes in for a service. Now, a small number of car manufacturers allow owners to download these updates ‘over the air’ (OTA) through the cellphone network. But how does it all work, and does it ‘chow’ data?

While this is new for cars, smartphone owners are only too familiar with software updates via Wi-Fi or the cellphone data network. An update of your phone’s operating system (Android or iOS) usually increases security or adds new functions, while updates to apps often address software ‘bugs’ that can cause a malfunction. When updating, there’s no need to plug the phone into a computer, since all updates can be performed wirelessly over the air.

Software updates are especially important for electric vehicles (EVs), because improvements can potentially extend the distance the car can drive, before the battery needs topping up at an electrical outlet.

The fully-electric Volvo XC40 Recharge P8 can cover as much as 418km per charge, under optimal conditions. But, future updates could increase that range by an estimated 5-10 percent, without increasing the total cost per charge. Another advantage of OTA software downloads for EVs is that some of these updates will reduce the time required for charging. This was, in fact, part of the latest update for the XC40 Recharge P8, in countries where it’s already on sale.

So, the updates have clear advantages, but will they drain your data package? According to Greg Maruszewski, Managing Director of Volvo Car South Africa, OTA updates use the same built-in sim card used for Volvo On Call (VOC), so there’s no cost to the customer. “So, in terms of file size, it doesn’t matter. These are normally very small packets of updates, where only a portion of the code is replaced, and not a whole new download,” he explains. Valid for five years, VOC comes standard with new Volvos. After this period, it can be extended. Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Mini and BMW also offer OTA updates with data packages available.

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