The Dangers Of “Connected” Automobiles

May 14, 2010

Back in November of 2009 I detailed my concerns regarding the safety and security of automobiles as they become more integrated with Web and telephony networks in an article called Forget H1N1 — How Computer Viruses Could Kill Cars And Those In Them In The Near Future. I proposed that good hackers could literally expose and utilize one small hole — be it in a two-way nav, diagnostic or other system to cause dangerous issues with internal engine, braking, handling, or a number of other management systems.

And my story was met with a collective: “yeah, sure.”

Actually, a few of my more tech-based friends found my analysis interesting and very real. It was one of these folks who today pointed me to a study done by University of Washington and University of California San Diego students. Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile from K. Koscher, A. Czeskis, F. Roesner, S. Patel, T. Kohno, S. Checkoway, D. McCoy, B. Kantor, D. Anderson, H. Shacham, S. Savage was just presented at The IEEE Symposium on Security and Privacy, Oakland, CA, May 16-19, 2010 and goes more in depth and comes to similar conclusions. Indeed they expose just how easy hacking into cars might actually be.

Read the UW/UCSD study for yourself at http://www.autosec.org/pubs/cars-oakland2010.pdf and tell me you still aren’t interested or concerned with the issues of safety and security in modern and future network-connected automobiles.


Forget H1N1! How Computer Viruses Could Kill Cars (And Those In Them) In the Near Future

November 2, 2009

One evening recently my wife yelled for me from her home office. Unfortunately, a virus had infiltrated her notebook pc and had taken the whole system over.

Like other pediatricians, she has been working long hours due to the nasty spread of H1N1. Ironically, standing in the way of her dictating the huge stack of patient charts was an entirely different type of destructive virus.

As some loyal readers know, long before I was an automotive writer I was a tech geek. I was first exposed to computer viruses in the 1980s when my high school became the first in the world to get hit with a system-wide virus — the dreaded nVIR, which took down the school’s fledgling Mac network. After college, I ran the business and technical operations of an early internet provider, Cyberspace.com, which in 1995 provided me the opportunity of working in cooperation with the FBI Computer Crimes Division in an attempt (make that “failed attempt”) to apprehend one of the world’s most wanted hackers and phreakers (one who hacks telecommunications networks and phone systems). I also later worked for web, system management and security software companies.

Ridding computers of malware (the name for malicious software viruses, worms, adware, etc…) is very similar to fixing problems with a car. One simply tries to methodically isolate the symptoms and problems. It is generally a tedious process, but with a great sense of accomplishment when the system is returned to good working order. It’s not surprising that I take as much pride in ridding a computer of a virus as I do synchronizing a pair of SU carbs.

Just like with automotive technology, computer viruses have become far more advanced and complex. I marveled at this specific virus’ ability to lock out the Task Manager and Registry Editor functions, prevent .exe files from running, all while elegantly blocking any web site with any mention of the name of the top anti-virus software applications.

At roughly 1:30AM in the midst of running a scan my train of thought segued from tampering with computers to hacking cars. I chuckled as I remembered when my friends wired the brake light circuit of a guy’s Miata to the horn, so the horn blew every time he hit the brakes.

Then almost immediately I got a sinking feeling in my gut. It occurred to me that the day when an elegantly-designed, yet very malicious virus targeted towards cars and trucks is far closer than any analyst or auto manufacturer have seemingly acknowledged.

Hackers and virus designers utilize two elements to work their evil magic: a host (a vulnerable system) and access (the ability to remotely install software to said host system). As far as the former, cars have been developing as host systems since ECUs of electronic ignition and fuel injection systems replaced points and carburetion in the 1980s. When the 1997 C5 Corvette first appeared, it did so with more on board computers than the first NASA Space Shuttle.

Access to car-based computer management, however, has been lacking. Over the last twenty years automotive systems have essentially been closed systems with access available only via mechanics’ scanners. While scanners do have downloadable updates, the manufacturers ensure that these are also fundamentally closed systems.

The biggest gift to hackers in terms of access is the Internet. By web-enabling cars and trucks to upload and download data from the ‘Net, this can certainly provide the right mind with a key to create mass vehicular chaos.

Let’s face it — the worst thing that can happen to your home computer is that all the data is erased and a full reformat and reload of software is required. All one needs to do is have a creepy imagination (like I do) to see the infinite opportunities for wreaking far greater damage on daily life that viruses could have in the automotive world as compared to personal and business computing. Think of it like Hootie and The Blowfish versus The Beatles in terms of global impact.

New vehicles feature drive-by-wire throttle control, computer-managed variable ratio steering, software-driven transmission, data-processing for stability control (yaw, ABS braking and traction control), and of course on-the-fly manipulation of fuel, spark and air induction. If these systems were to be insecurely tied (even indirectly) to a seemingly innocuous web-enabled process – any or all systems could be hacked and reprogrammed with a virus created by a guy sitting in his parent’s basement with a couple computers and a stack of empty pizza and Mountain Dew bottles.

Imagine if your car had a virus that sporadically reversed the drive-by-wire gas pedal to make wide-open-throttle at the standard idle position. Maybe someone’s idea of “funny” would be to constantly vary the variable ratio steering or deploy all the airbags given a certain odometer reading. My nightmare, though, is that a hacker would write a virus to utilize throttle position data and stability control to simply speed a car up, apply one brake and disable all airbags to ensure a catastrophic collision.

How much web-enabling is enough to open the Box in Pandora’s Camaro? I have no idea. Since manufacturers are already touting in ads the ability for cars to send emails to dealers and text to owners when service is necessary, the window of opportunity seems to be opening. If I were a betting man, I’d guess that the moment one can browse the web or check email via a factory-installed navigation system, the games will be on.

I hope I’m wrong. Maybe the worst thing that will happen is that the nav system in all Dodge Chargers will instantly show all Hooters restaurants and adult theaters in the US. Of course, given that car’s demographic, this would probably be considered a well-appreciated benefit.

And don’t expect anti-virus software to help your car. Most system administrators will tell you that the consumer security software products like Norton are useless, because they are reactionary. They are even less valuable than a car alarm, because at least a car alarm annoys people into noticing a vehicle has been broken into before they throw rocks at the car in hopes of shutting off the noise. In the case of consumer anti-virus software, it just sits there eating RAM totally unaware that the system has been taken over.

As I recall in my discussions with the FBI Computer Crimes guru, the challenge is that there are lonely people spending twenty hours seven days per week trying to hack software, but in the best case scenarios, the engineers are only working eight to twelve hours Monday through Friday to prevent them. Maybe I’m a cynic, but I don’t trust that auto manufacturers right now are taking to heart the old precept: hope for the best, plan for the worst.


Import Tuners, Hot Rods, Muscle Cars And “Getting It”

June 8, 2009

If I had a dollar for every collector car guy or hot rodder who communicated to me in some way their lack of understanding about import tuner cars and the kids who drive them, I’d be able to afford a thumping subwoofer and some neon lights for my ‘60 TR3. All too many car enthusiasts seem to look at the coffee-can exhaust crowd with one part confusion and another part disgust.

For those who grew up in the pre cell phone days, allow me to make this very simple for you: the kids you’re looking at driving slammed Civics with wings are just a younger version of you. You just haven’t made the connection yet.

So allow me to make the connection for you.

About ten years ago my father-in-law made some statement about not understanding why someone would do all that crazy garbage to a Honda. I simply asked him: “what was your first car?”

“A 1950 Ford” he replied.

“Did you buy it new?”

“No, it was my parents’ old car.” He explained.


“What was the first thing you did to it when it became ‘your car’?” I continued.

“I stripped off all that chrome. It’s what everyone did in those days.”

“And what did your parents think about that?”

“They asked me why I was ruining the car!”

After explaining that parents don’t give their kids hand-me-down ’50 Fords anymore…now it’s Accords, Civics, Corollas, Tiburons, Eclipses, Imprezas, and since there’s no chrome anymore to take off, personalization trends have swayed towards exhaust, wings, lenses, wheels…he “got it”.

“Getting it” doesn’t necessarily mean wanting it for yourself. It does, however, lead one to understand that spouting derogatory phrases at the guy with the stickers, aero kit and wing on the ten-year-old econobox is no different than your dad yelling at you for buying Cragars and glass-packs for Mom’s Impala…or your dad getting yelled-at by grandpa for unbolting the perfectly good fenders from the ’32 Ford and spending a week’s pay for and a weekend’s time installing that foolish Edelbrock intake and carb setup on its flathead.

At the end of the day, we’re all car people. We might express our love for the hobby in different ways based upon where, when and how we were exposed to cars, but at the core we’re far more similar than we usually realize.

And even if it isn’t your cup of tea, take solace in the notion that most of the drivers of cars you shake your head at today will be scolding their own kids for making similar counterproductive modifications to a hand-me-down family car in the future.


It’s Going To Get Ugly: GM Had “Supercars” Before Setright’s Miura

September 24, 2008

It is considered automotive historical fact that British auto journalist L.J.K Setright coined the word “supercar” in his review of the Lamborghini Miura. Even I have referenced this piece of trivia.

There’s one huge problem, though! It’s wrong.

One of the benefits of having a huge collection of old automotive magazines is that you learn something new every single time your colon comes a-calling. For my morning constitutional today, I picked up the May 1966 edition of Car Life.

On page 28, Car Life’s road test of the ’66 Chevy II 327/350 V-8 uses the subtitle “Who Needs 400 Inches for Supercar Status?”. The last paragraph uses the word three times. (“More intriguing, however, is the fact that the Chevy II 327 relates more to the present proliferation of Supercars than it does to a counter-Mustang. And in that context, it is well worth a close examination. Unlike some samples from the Supercar spectrum, it maintains a gentleness along with its fierce performance potential; its power/weight ratio is second to none and it is definitely better balanced than most. While admittedly giving a cubic inch advantage away to the more established models, the Corvette engine manages to be just as competitive in pure output. On the basis of specific bhp/cu. in. ratios, as a matter of fact, it stands heads about the Supercar level.”

Gulp…did Car Life indirecly call the Chevy II a Supercar? And did they do it in a magazine that hit the mail before the May 1st opening day of the 1966 Geneva Motor Show, where the Miura was unveiled to the public and press?

But wait…there’s more!

This wasn’t a passing thing in this issue of Car Life. We now turn to page 51. In the comparison test of Pontiac’s Tempest Sprint (with OHC Six) and GTO, there is a caption for a picture of the GTO. “GTO CONTINUES to be a pace-setter in the Supercar crowd.”

Indeed, a little research shows that Car Life had been using the Supercar word to describe the cars in its pages for over a year. In March 1966, a review of the Plymouth Satellite has a picture with caption as follows: “PLYMOUTH 383-cu. in. engine has just enough space around it for easy tuning accessibility, is big enough to give the Satellite “Supercar” status and action. (By the way this was the same issue that covered the Lamborghini’s frame and V12 engine unveiling that would later become the Miura).

It seems Car Life started using “supercar” instead of “muscle cars”. The first use of supercar seems to be in its article on the 1965 Pontiac GTO. Fingering through earlier articles on 409 Impalas, 426 Mopars and even August 1964 articles on the 1965 Corvette and Cobra, there are no mentions of the word anywhere.

Car Life certainly didn’t invent the word, either. Supercar was first used conversation in England in the 1920s, or least that’s what I’ve been told. Since I wasn’t there, I have to believe that, like most elements of automotive history, someone somewhere else used it earlier, but we believe the legend.


The Stock and Credit Crunches..And How It Relates To Cars

September 16, 2008

Unless you have been under a rock for the last year, you know that there’s an ongoing credit crunch, which in turn has caused the stock market to plummet like the neckline on a Grammy-evening dress. Here are some interesting concepts in terms of how credit affects the world of cars.

1) Dealers cannot get credit to buy cars: This applies to both new and used car dealers. Fewer new car dealers mean less sales by manufacturers. Usually sales are reported as deliveries to dealers. If new and used car dealers cannot get lines of credit, they have to pay cash for the cars they floor. With the exception of the long-running dealers, most use credit to floor cars.

2) Manufacturers have less cash with which to work: When the stock plummets and there’s no available credit, companies like Ford and GM have less money for R+D, operations and changing production to more profitable products.

3) Less money for advertising: This means fewer sponsorship dollars for racing, which translates to a scary future for every series from SCCA and Grand Am to American Le Mans and NASCAR.

4)Higher prices for cars: Even though the Fed just announced no change for the interest rate, the rate is still low enough to devalue the dollar. Since most automotive components come from other markets (China, Germany etc…), it costs more to build cars. That cost must be passed on to consumers.

5) Say goodbye to halos: No money…no supercars that make no money for the corporations. Even the Viper is in peril!

6) It’s buying time: If you have cash, it’s time to start looking for your dream car — be it classic or new. In times like this, it’s a buying opportunity for those who are savvy. It might seem heartless to take advantage of other’s misfortunes, but isn’t that the American way?

No matter how one looks at it or what the Presidential/VP candidates might claim, the near-term economy looks really grim, especially for fans of automobiles…but again, if you have stockpiles of cash, it won’t be all too bad!


Spotted: 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe At Pebble Beach!

August 13, 2008

Hyundai Genesis Coupe Prototype

When covering all the happenings here at Pebble Beach, you’re on the lookout for new cars and prototypes.  Today I noticed a Hyundai Genesis Coupe prototype sitting with a production Genesis Sedan parked off to the side of the Blackhawk Exposition.

hyundai genesis coupe rear

hyundai genesis coupe rear

One thing is for certain: this is by far the prettiest car Hyundai has ever produced.  Hell, I’ll go on record saying it will be one of the most beautiful cars offered period when it is offered in showrooms.  Everyone who walked by (and we’re talking about people who can afford to drop six and seven figures on things with four wheels) thought it was downright perfect in proportions.  Everyone was stunned to see the “H” badge!

Hopefully the great design will be backed by performance (courtesy of a six cylinder engine, rear-wheel-drive

 and independent suspension) and build/engineering quality of equal caliber.


The Numbers Don’t Lie: Car Model Success Versus Failure

August 11, 2008

As a former marketing guy, I love to analyze sales and production results. Once per month I get to witness how reality and perception take very different paths.

Advertising and PR firms have gotten pretty good at manipulating not only the consumers, but also the media. Too many automotive journalists today seem to have no use for data or patience for analysis…and therefore are quick to talk about the success of a particular model without seeing the numbers that could support or contradict the message.

Here are a few cars that are less successful than what the manufacturers or media would have you believe:

Audi A8/S8: Audi is a favorite of enthusiasts, especially among the journalists at some of the major publications. The A8 and its higher-performance S8 platform-mate get so many glowing reviews as the ultimate executive sedans that people often cite how successful the line is. Evidently, everyone has been watching the film “Ronin” over and over on cable rather than looking at the statistics, because Audi’s A8/S8 team is an absolute sales bust! Through July, the A8 and S8 have combined for a scant 1633 units in 2008. In comparison, the much-derided BMW 7-Series (in its last year before a significant update) delivered 2942 units in July alone!

2005-Present Ford Mustang: I’m bringing this up again – “retro” has done as much for Ford’s pony as Brian Bosworth did for the Seattle Seahawks. I’ve had plenty of smart, educated, well-informed car people jump down my throat on this one, only to retract their statements when hearing the statistics about how the current generation of Mustang simply isn’t outselling its predecessor.

The figures don’t lie: In July 2008, the Mustang delivered 10,711 units (almost equal to 2007) and is hitting 65,764 units for the year, off 25 percent from 2007 levels. The current generation had 160,975 units delivered in 2005, 166,530 in 2006 and 134,626 in 2007. This equates to a total of 527,895 units, and averages to 147,320 units per model year.

The Mustang’s previous generation, which was widely considered just a rather poor styling update had the following results: 166,915 in 1999, 173,676 in 2000, 169,198 in 2001, 138,356 in 2002 140,350 in 2003, and 129,858 in the last year before the widely-publicized launch of the new platform. This total of 918,353 units averages out to 153,059 per model year, which includes the recession periods of 2000, 2001 and early 2002.

While the current Ford Mustang tickles the eyes of those old enough to have been of driving age in the 1960s (the ones that drive BMW, Lexus and Mercedes vehicles now), Honda’s Civic – a car targeted at the Mustang’s core demographic saw continued average growth and expansion.

Chrysler 300C: It’s been “Car of the Year” and has been the darling of the NASCAR set, but the 300 has only been a sales success on Chrysler’s own internal scale. At 3818 units delivered in July and 43,832 over 2008, it’s performing worse than the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Even last year it was basically neck-and-neck with the Grand Cherokee, which is basically a 4WD niche vehicle. For all the hype over the 300, it has never came close to getting within a couple hundred-thousand units of Camry or Accord, and seems to have less staying power than an 80-year-old with an empty bottle of Cialis.

But just to show that this all isn’t a new phenomenon:

Acura Integra and Honda Prelude – Did you realize that the darling of the import-tuner group sold just around 25,000 units annually? Still, this was about 2.5 times the number of Preludes sold each year in 1999 and 2000. Honda/Acura, as well as plenty of publications, still cite how successful these models were at selling in mass quantities. I just wonder how seemingly every last one of these cars seemed to survive so that they can fly down the road behind my house at 2AM with their coffee-can exhausts waking up the neighborhood.