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Act now or face hackers taking control of cars: QUT

Australia needs to act swiftly to avoid the risk of cyberattacks on increasingly computerised vehicles in readiness for the impending arrival of self-driving vehicles and intelligent transport systems, according to academics from QUT in Queensland.

BMW remote car control app
BMW remote car control app

Presenting his paper entitled Security Issues for Future Intelligent Transport Systems at the recent Australasian Road Safety Conference on Queensland’s Gold Coast, QUT information security expert Ernest Foo said the transport industry needs to take information security cues from the banking sector if malicious hacking of vehicles and infrastructure is to be avoided.

“When talking about the car of the future we are talking about connected vehicles, vehicles that exchange information to facilitate warnings and improve on-road safety,” said Dr Foo.

“The connection could be as simple as alerting a driver of an impending crash or as complex as allowing driverless cars on our roads.”

Either way, according to Dr Foo, there must be a robust method of securing these connections, or we face “the potential for vehicles to receive misinformation or more critically for car hackers to maliciously take control of a vehicle”.

Dr Ernest Foo
Dr Ernest Foo

“For vehicles to connect there needs to be a secure system to allow the safe transfer of information. Public key infrastructure is a security system that is already used to facilitate the safe transfer of information such as banking details.”

He also said that that while Australia currently has no guidelines to control public infrastructure for the use of intelligent transport systems, QUT research had found existing guidelines in Europe and the United States to have limitations when it comes to “safety-critical vehicle environments”.

“The sheer amount of vehicles to be connected poses safety concerns, along with privacy, security and scalability under different traffic scenarios … The proposed systems in the US and Europe are too complex and pose potential risks for security and privacy flaws,” he said.

However it is not too late.  Australia can benefit from data generated by the trials already happening overseas, so guidelines developed now would be helped by a clearer view of the technology and how intelligent transport systems will work in the real world.

“What we need to be doing in Australia is developing a system that offers an acceptable level of privacy, security and autonomy, while being flexible enough to work effectively in a complex environment,” said Dr Foo.

Driverless Volvo makes history in Adelaide

South Australia is pitching itself as a centre for the development of autonomous vehicle technology and the State Government has even introduced legislation making it easier for self-driving vehicles to be tested on public roads.

Driverless Volvo trial in Adelaide
Driverless Volvo trial in Adelaide

As such, the International Driverless Cars Conference was recently held in Adelaide and part of the event involved a Volvo XC90 SUV driving itself along the Southern Expressway (which was closed just in case) a number of times with passengers onboard, and at speeds of up to 70km/h.

Due to the number of hi-tech systems on-board, only a minor software tweak was required to allow the Swedish family wagon to drive itself.

Not so successful was a media demonstration in which a self-steering Subaru carrying SA Transport Minister Stephen Mulligan whacked into an inflatable kangaroo.

Electric vehicle Brand Tesla issued an ‘Autopilot’ software update in October that would allow hands-free driving, but founder Elon Musk has since announced another update would follow to curb some of the “crazy” behaviour he has seen on YouTube with people abusing the system.

BMW’s latest 7 Series also has an autonomous mode, but sensors in the steering wheel disable the system if the driver takes their hands away for more than 15 seconds.

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