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'Digital carjackers' are the worst sort of backseat drivers

A pair of automotive researchers proved that cars can be hacked, just like computers.


Our vehicles are becoming more like consumer electronics -- more like mobile computers on wheels -- and a pair of "digital carjackers" demonstrated what happens when all of the tech beneath the sheet metal falls into mischievous hands.

More and more components of modern vehicles have begun to fall under the control of computers. And we're not just talking about infotainment and dashboard apps. Think about it: a modern vehicle's engine, brakes, electronic power steering, active safety systems, and sometimes even the throttle are ultimately controlled by little electronic brains somewhere behind the dashboard.

In the video below, a pair of automotive hackers, Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, demonstrate to a Forbes staff reporter how they're able to spoof fuel levels and vehicle speeds to display incorrect data on the dashboard, trigger the precollision system, take limited control of the electronic power steering system, honk the horn, tug at the driver with the seat belts, and even deactivate the brakes. Scary stuff.

To be fair, hacking the Prius in the video wasn't as simple as plugging into the dashboard USB port. Cars are traditionally closed systems, so the hacked vehicle's dashboard had to be almost completely disassembled for the demonstrators to access the many electronic control units (ECUs). It also looks like the prankster's laptop has to be wired into (or at least very near) the vehicle to trigger the events.

However, as we approach the age of autonomous cars where a vehicle's dozens of ECUs become more centralized and more vehicles start to feature wireless communications, automakers will need to pay closer attention to these vulnerabilities.