Funny, but not… when IT becomes a car crash

16 August 2015

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You may well have seen the recent announcement of the restructuring at Google, whereby the loss-making ‘conceptual’ areas are cordoned off while the main, money-making parts of the business are more clearly defined.  Amongst the conceptual areas being explored by Google is the driverless car.  It’s widely expected that driverless cars will be commonplace soon (Ford expects them to be fully developed by 2020 and in regular use a few years after that).  The IT industry will play a key role in this development and there will be considerable opportunities for talented individuals to overcome the myriad technical challenges that still exist before the concept becomes a workable reality. It’s not just the technology that matters though; the industry will also have to work hard to convert a sceptical public with all its concerns about the safety of such vehicles.

The latter are equally important as the former.  We know the technology will sort out the driving, stop us hitting each other, tow horse-boxes and caravans and even account for Jeremy Clarkson cutting us up in his latest Amazonian supercar.  But overcoming the (natural) concern that the Clarksons of this world create an un-anticipatable element to tax even the smartest computer requires more than just technological brilliance. And beyond this, it’s also going to be important to ensure that, as with all technology, the baddies don’t actually use it to their advantage rather than ours.  Cyber-crime is the most obvious illustration of this in the ‘normal’ business world, as the recent attack on Carphone Warehouse dramatically showed, but cars too can be hacked and the consequences are potentially more life-threatening than losing money from your bank accounts. 

That’s why I was actually rather pleased, as well as entertained, by Wired magazine’s report on a (staged) confrontation between hackers and a Jeep, in which the hackers won hands down.

The hackers took control of all the car’s systems. Not just the radio and wipers, but also the accelerator and brakes, which was rather worrying as the car was on the freeway with an 18 wheeler truck behind it…

The problem lies in the fact that, as Wired states in its article, car manufacturers are all striving “to turn the modern automobile into a smartphone”.  As a result of one vulnerable element in hundreds of thousands of Fiat Chrysler vehicles, anyone with the necessary techie skills can access the car’s IP address – and take control.

Consequently, the US senate has plans to introduce an automotive security bill, “to set new digital security standards for cars and trucks”.  It’s a graphic illustration of how technology creates problems as well as opportunities. It is also likely to spawn increased expertise in the law around this area and the general need not just to legislate against all cyber crimes, whether the hacking of Carphone Warehouse or of a Jeep SUV. The former won’t kill anyone, the latter just might, and if that happens then all the work that has gone into development, implementation and marketing of what will be an undoubted boon to mankind will be wasted. And that would be the real crime.

Michael Phair, Be-IT Resourcing

 

 

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