The cost of connectivity: the veiled threat of smart features

Connected cars on highway
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Cars are far more than a mode of transport to get from point A to B - people now demand smart features on four wheels to make a personal and comfortable transition from their hyper connected homes and office buildings. They have come a long way since Henry Ford created the Model T, a car that famously put the world on wheels.

About the author

Jeff Davis, Senior Director of IVY Ecosystems Business Development at BlackBerry.

It was the perfect solution to the growing need to move people across vast distances in early 20th century America, opening up a world of possibility. Technology has gone on to continuously rewrite the transport rulebook. From the development of electric vehicles (EV) to reduce emissions and the smart features within these vehicles to make roads safer, automakers and innovators continue to advance the frontiers of innovation in vehicles.

Electric cars – hurdles in the transition

More than ever, as the world reflects on COP26 and works to match words with action, the purpose of EVs should be fixed firmly in our minds. Human activity is continuing to adversely influence the climate, and attention is increasingly turning towards the potential of electric vehicles to drive down emissions and support ambitious climate change goals.

Tailpipe emissions are only one part of the carbon produced from operating a vehicle; however, they are an important part that should be central to mapping out the steps toward a zero-carbon future. As energy production becomes greener, the need for fossil fuel burning power plants will eliminate the carbon produced from energy generation and transfer.

Make no mistake, this first step of an all-electric fleet is a leap, not a hop into a very complicated future. Current employment structures, labor laws, infrastructure development, and power allocation all create challenges for automotive manufactures, law makers, regulators, and infrastructure owners. The one-year jump of nearly a million new EVs between 2019 and 2020 is a very small step considering there are 1.2 billion (yes billion with a b) automobiles on the road to be replaced worldwide, and there are expected to be over 2 billion by 2035.

To compound complexity, let’s look at the issues facing electrification technology. No, not the electric engine itself, although there have been many advances the concept is straightforward. I will avoid confusing myself by discussing battery technology, that’s a place where a lot of smart people are making some impressive discoveries.

No, I work for a software company, so let’s talk software. There are about 100 million lines of code in your current internal combustion engine coming off the line right now. As we move into electric vehicles and towards edge computing on vehicles, that number can go up significantly.

Beyond the safety systems that are increased and improved every year, electric cars benefit from systems that can judge and improve energy output, battery usage, and charging functions. The software and technology challenge is achievable, thanks to some very innovative embedded engineers. Think for a second what all of this means for the car.

The powertrain is regulated by software; the safety features are regulated by software; and even the source of power to the car is managed by software. This leaves every aspect of the automobile subject to cybersecurity vulnerabilities. The car that is more connected than ever, more reliant on technology than ever, the car that is more needed by the world than ever is a big open target for cyber predators.

Think beyond the car, to the fact that this, very necessary, very well-built car must connect to the electricity grid to get its power. Think of what that grid is connected to, think of the damage that could be done to an economy, to a country, to a people if you remove their source of energy. So, one of the most complicated aspects of our greener future, our connected future, our better future is… that’s right…cybersecurity.

The catch with cyber communication

The more software in a car, the more cyber-attacks surface. Connected vehicles, which can contain over 100 independently developed components, are difficult to secure with multiple vendors involved in their assembly. The complex automotive supply chain makes enforcing common cybersecurity criteria onerous.

From simple data theft to advanced system hijacking, vehicles could be compromised through a paired smartphone. Hijacking any part of a vehicle can have severe consequences for passengers and pedestrians. Securing vehicles from cyber threats becomes increasingly difficult with every additional connection, electronic component, and software-driven system. 

This industry can’t afford the same mistakes technology and software industries have made. It’s unacceptable to ship vehicle software riddled with vulnerabilities, requiring constant updates and security tools. Until effective cybersecurity protocols are incorporated in manufacturing vehicles and their components, modern automobiles are effectively insecure networks.

How to Stay Ahead

Smart features do represent a paradigm shift in transportation. However, their features don’t make them valuable, their connectivity does. Nevertheless, the terabytes of data generated daily can be analyzed and applied on a larger scale to make smart cities safer and more efficient.

The downside is cybersecurity risks that can’t be overlooked. The average vehicle today has more lines of code than most fighter jets. Cars are connected, working off the cloud and segmented into specific architectures. We cannot predict all the ways in which cybercriminals will attack, but we know privacy will be centric. Policy makers must ensure the system governing the next generation of transportation protects the lives and privacy of the people it serves. The UN created cybersecurity guidelines for automakers, laying the groundwork for increased vehicle security – all countries should follow suit.

Machine learning in fortifying our defense – and opening doors to the future of auto

As innovation in the automotive industry grows, and the capabilities of vehicles multiply, it is fundamental for automakers to consider safety. In these circumstances, data and context are critical. Fortunately, vast amounts of data are generated from connected fleets, as well as by distributed directory and human resource systems indicating which user activities are permissible, and which are not. This data can provide contextual clues to reduce threats.

Machine learning (ML) also excels in this environment. By broadly understanding activity surrounding assets under their control, ML-driven solutions allow analysts to discover the relationship between events over time and across disparate hosts, users, and networks. Properly applied, ML can provide contextual information to reduce risks and potential costs of a breach. Mobility sector professionals must understand the capabilities and limitations of machine learning and become adept in determining what a suitable secure smart vehicle solution is.

In fact, once the security of connected vehicles is standardized, doors are opened for the standardization of myriad standard capabilities in automobiles. This enables exciting innovation to become far easier and quicker across the entire industry.

Smaller companies such as auto start-ups may not have infinite access to data and equipment capable of supporting their new ideas for fantastic, futuristic automotive experiences. In these cases, there is an opportunity for bigger industry players to share platforms equipped with the flexible, secure technology to support such players. This will help start-ups and, indeed, even established players to shorten and de-risk innovation and bring ideas to market faster. As they continue building using the hardware platforms, Oss, and cloud providers, the entire automotive industry accelerates its capabilities, ideas, and offerings to customers.

In the past year, cybersecurity has mainly been discussed in the capacity of national security. Yet it is of equal importance this be looked at in great depth when it comes to connected vehicles. Vehicles are smart machines, but machines nonetheless. With immense power anything interfering with the function of a car could be catastrophic; equally, when the right systems protect vehicles, a huge array of opportunities become available to those wishing to delight customers with new automotive experiences. When the security of connected vehicles has been effectively addressed, smart vehicles can truly achieve their potential.

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Jeff Davis, Senior Director of IVY Ecosystems Business Development at BlackBerry.