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On the Point

500-Car Pileup

Da Man ponders a future where all cars are driverless — and prone to hackers. He calls on automakers to get serious about securing their vehicles.

September 18, 2015

Picture this: It’s August 12, 2035. The time is 7:20 a.m. on Interstate 5 in Los Angeles. Thousands of cars sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, just like any other day. Most of those cars are autonomous, self-driving, high-tech designs. Commuters are drinking simulated coffee beverages and working on their mobile devices, paying no attention to the road or traffic as their self-driving vehicles creep flawlessly toward their pre-programmed destinations.

Many of these futuristic vehicles are Uber driverless cars; just make a phone call and a car shows up at your door and drops you off at your destination. Why would you own a car when you can Uber for a small fraction of the car payment you opted against? And since it’s driverless, Ubers are a very cheap ride.

But on this perfect California day, five shadowy figures are sitting in a van parked at a strip mall near an overpass. As the volume of traffic approaches the morning high, they flip the switch on whatever high-tech weaponry they’re sitting on.

Suddenly, cars accelerate, brakes fail, trucks jack-knife and roll; hundreds of cars and trucks smash into each other, roll down embankments and catch fire. We’re witnessing the most massive pileup in history; it’s a scene out of a disaster movie that hasn’t yet been captured on film, or whatever technology they use to make movies in the future.

Of course, this is all imaginary. No way could this happen in real life, right? It’s total fantasy. You may even be thinking I’ve dipped into some of that expensive Louis XIII cognac again.

OK, enough with that. Let’s get back to the present day.  It’s 2015 and you’re in St. Louis. You’re cruising along at 70 miles per hour in your new Jeep Cherokee. All of a sudden, the air conditioning systems start blowing hot and cold air, the radio changes channels, your windshield wipers turn on and wiper fluid sprays the windshield, blinding you.

Your Jeep has been hacked by two fools with a laptop 10 miles away. They even put their own leering image on the car’s dashboard display. If they wanted to, they could crash your car because they have control of the transmission, brakes, maybe the steering and probably the accelerator.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you know this actually happened. It was a test set up by WIRED magazine to demonstrate how easily a Jeep could be hacked and controlled remotely. But this phenomenon is not limited to Jeep or FIAT Chrysler products. In fact, within weeks of the WIRED article being published, researchers from the University of California at San Diego hacked a 2013 Corvette. There was also the 2010 incident in Austin, Texas, where an unhappy former dealership employee disabled more than 100 cars, causing the technology features to go wildly out of control.

See, today’s cars have as many as 100 microprocessors as well as externally accessible technology. That is a thousand times more computerization than we put in Apollo 11 before we sent it to the moon in 1969.

We’ve known for years that GM’s OnStar has the ability to remotely shut down a car and unlock the doors. What else can OnStar do? We’ve heard the shadowy rumors that with some sort of warrant, government agencies can listen to in-car conversations through OnStar. Is that an urban legend or a high-tech reality?

Well, guess what? The threat of cyber terrorism and cyber hijacking of cars is so real that automakers are forming a new Information Sharing and Analysis Center (ISACS). And that’s a good thing. Think about it. The U.S. government, which you’d think would have some sort of high-dollar security system, is being routinely hacked by terrorists, teenagers living in mom’s basement and foreign governments. And if car manufacturers can’t even get the recalls right, how can we expect them to protect us from technology terrorism?

My new 2016 Ford Explorer Limited has the ability to reduce its speed to avoid collisions when the cruise control is engaged. It can even park itself and take voice commands. I love these high-tech features, but every one of them could kill me if they were hacked by bad people.

The problem is vehicle OEMs are leaping into this connectivity push without considering the dangers of such technology. What they need to do is create iron-clad safeguards through every step of development, but this clearly isn’t happening right now. If OEMs don’t take this threat seriously, it could become an issue that will never be resolved.

Jim Ziegler is the president of Ziegler SuperSystems Inc. Email him at jim.ziegler@bobit.com.

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Author Bio

Jim Ziegler

President & CEO of Ziegler SuperSystems

Jim 'Da Man' Ziegler joined the magazine in 2011 to deliver his On-the-Point message about the car business to dealer principals and store managers. He'll offer strategy advice on everything from sales and F&I to marketing in the digital age. Catch him every month at www.fi-magazine.com.

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