NHTSA Taking on Cyber Security Threats Posed by “Connected Cars”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed creating a new division to deal with cybersecurity risks that have arisen from the development of “connected cars.”

Testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee today, NHTSA head David Strickland said, “These interconnected electronics systems are creating opportunities to improve vehicle safety and reliability, but are also creating new and different safety and cybersecurity risks.”  He added, “We don’t want to be behind the eight ball.”

The new division will be charged with identifying risks that arise from systems that allow vehicles to communicate online and with other vehicles.

During the Senate hearing, a number of lawmakers, including the Committee’s chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), expressed concerns about the possibility of a range of cyber security risks. Rockefeller posed the question, “As our cars become more connected — to the Internet, to wireless networks, with each other, and with our infrastructure — are they at risk of catastrophic cyber-attacks?”

According to Strickland, the fact that would-be hackers currently have to have physical access to an automobile in order to manipulate it electronics serves as a deterrent, but the trend is toward technologies that allow for remote access.  “If there is a chance of it happening, we have to address it,” said Strickland.

The agency’s proactive approach to dealing with cyber threats may well be the result of lessons learned during Toyota’s multiple safety recalls dealing with unintended acceleration in 2010.

The average luxury automobile uses onboard computers with upwards of 100 million lines of code to control everything from braking and acceleration to climate control and entertainment.  According to University of Wisconsin industrial and systems engineering Professor John D. Lee, who also testified before the Senate Committee, electronics and software account for approximately 40 percent of some vehicle’s cost.

Strickland admitted that the NHTSA faces an uphill battle.  Speaking with reporters after the Senate Committee hearing, Strickland said, “Cyber security is hard. Even the best systems in the world can be compromised, as we have seen.”

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