Vehicle Cybersecurity

You have likely heard about cybersecurity risks at home and in your professional life. Your identity, assets, and finances are all at risk of hackers and others who are able to gain access to your electronic devices and networks. The results of successful intrusions can be devastating.

Computers are not just for the home or office, though — modern vehicles contain powerful computer systems that are getting more complex every day. Computer systems in cars have gone from digital speedometers and electronic light systems to GPS and crash avoidance features. 

These systems, too, are vulnerable to accidental and deliberate tampering and damage. They must be protected along with all the other networks and devices.

Vehicle Cybersecurity and NHTSA’s Role in Automotive Cybersecurity

When it comes to your cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices, the goal of cybersecurity is simple. Cybersecurity is about protecting these devices, and the information contained therein, from unauthorized access, accidental damage, or tampering that could jeopardize the functionality of the device and the security of data.

Automotive cybersecurity addresses similar concerns. Recognizing the complexity and sensitivity of a car’s computer systems and software, vehicle cybersecurity looks for ways to protect these systems. The goal is to avoid disruptions to or compromises of the functionality of these systems. 

Agencies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are now looking for ways to identify and protect against threats to automotive systems before they materialize and pose a danger to motorists.

Current Vehicle Cybersecurity Research Efforts

NHTSA and its partners are currently looking at various methods by which automotive electronics can be safeguarded from attack and disruption. Some of these current methods include:

Delivering Software and Firmware Updates to Consumers

Updates to your cell phone, desktop, or laptop help protect that device from the most current electronic threats. Developers regularly release these updates to consumers as new threats and vulnerabilities are identified. Oftentimes, receiving such updates is as simple as connecting to the internet and restarting the device.

At present, there is no similarly easy way to get regular updates for a car’s computer or software. Current research is looking into ways to change that. 

As automotive companies identify new ways in which a car’s electronics could be attacked, rolling out updates to a car’s computers can help improve vehicle cybersecurity in an ever-changing security environment.

Researchers are looking into not just the substance of these updates but how these updates can be delivered. This includes whether updates can be delivered directly to a car wirelessly or through a wired connection at home, a repair shop, or elsewhere.

Distinguishing Between Commercial Vehicles and Private Vehicles

NHTSA research is also looking into identifying the vehicle cybersecurity needs of private passenger vehicles and those of larger commercial vehicles like buses and trucks. While both types of vehicles use computers and software to operate, this does not mean that both face the same threats.

By working with industry experts, NHTSA and its partners hope to gain a better understanding of the unique risks that the private and commercial industries face. This, in turn, can assist experts in developing more nuanced, threat-specific solutions for private drivers and those who operate vehicles for business.

Improving Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications

Vehicle-to-vehicle communications, sometimes called v2v communications, refers to technology that allows vehicles to automatically share data with one another about each vehicle’s speed, direction, and other information. 

This shared information helps vehicles equipped with automated driving technologies to better anticipate traffic conditions as they change and react to these conditions appropriately.

The technology that enables this communication is still being developed and perfected. As it is refined, efforts are being made to ensure such communication is secure and accurate as it is transmitted from one vehicle to the next.

Promoting Automotive Cybersecurity in the Present

Dialogue among those involved in automotive cybersecurity can help agencies and research groups identify and respond to new threats. Such collaboration can also work to promote best practices among the various types of stakeholders. 

This cooperation can, in turn, help ensure that consumers will benefit from the most current cybersecurity methods no matter the manufacturer or company they use.

The Future of Vehicle Cybersecurity

Vehicle cybersecurity is a new and evolving area of research, and it remains to be seen how this field of research will expand and develop in the future. As vehicle assistive technologies continue to develop and become more commonplace, the risk of an attack or disruption will continue to grow as well.

NHTSA and others wish to continue aggressively and proactively seeking out potential threats and vulnerabilities and encouraging industry-wide communication and collaboration. By doing so, they hope to help consumers and businesses experience minimal threats to their safety and convenience.

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