Are autonomous cars hack-proof?


Are autonomous cars hack-proof?

Are your security updates always up to date on all your devices? And what about those of your neighbours, your coworkers, your fellow citizens? And even when everything is up to date, are all those devices secure, all the time?

An autonomous car is essentially an electronic network composed of anywhere between 80 to 100 electronic control units — small computers controlling different functions both critical and non-critical. As connected, intelligent cars are increasingly resembling computers on wheels, cybersecurity issues and the possibility of data hacking are a reality that needs to be addressed both at the technical and and the social level.

The main challenge ahead for car manufacturers will be to inspire drivers’ trust in new mobility technology and confidence that their private data is secure. At Movin’On Summit, cybersecurity leader Jean-Marie Letort (Thales) and cognitive psychologist Angela Weltman discussed both the importance of secured systems and the path to make sure the general public both understands what’s safe and is able to let go of its collective fear.


Secure by design

The first step in creating acceptance for new technology is actually making it safe. According to Jean-Marie Letort, vehicle manufacturers need to integrate cybersecurity requirements, including isolating critical information systems, at the early design phase as opposed to layering it on after.

The challenges are primarily technical: encryption, data transfer systems, blockchain, user identification systems, etc. Tackling these issues is a precondition for unleashing the full potential of autonomous vehicles as part of a shift to a mobility as a service paradigm.

Thales is working with the PSA Group, which makes of Peugeot and Citroën vehicles, to develop a specific automotive riskanalysis methodology. It assesses the likelihood and intensity of an attack scenario to help develop the necessary countermeasures.

Manufacturers should also consider:

  • 24/7 security monitoring
  • end-to-end data encryption
  • firewalls built into the car’s system


“We do not have the right to fail. This is not only a business project, this is a global ambition for society. If we succeed in autonomous driving, we will reduce road mortalities, traffic jams and pollution, while also improving quality of life and accessibility.”

— Jean-Marie Letort, Thales



How to overcome the collective fear of change

Autonomous vehicles offer the potential for safer streets, but there is much work to be done to gain public trust and convince skeptics that they are safe. People are often put off by a change of interface even in a software they are used to, which is far from the scope of a major technological shift. As a cognitive psychologist and consultant with major automotive manufacturers, Angela Weltman specializes in examining underlying motivations of behaviour to inspire automotive product design. By combining classic psychology theories with social, demographic and generational trends, she finds creative solutions to product development and innovation.

According to Dr. Weltman, here’s how can innovators help the public to surpass irrational fears:

  1. Make the benefits clear: If a new technology is so self-evidently useful and greatly improves quality of life, initial hesitations will be overcome quickly.
  2. Encourage gradual desensitization: Many cars already on the market have elements of autonomy, such as automatic parking. Gradual change is easier change, which can help make fully autonomous cars less of a shock.
  3. Support early adopters: The first people to embrace a new technology are often people who receive unusually high benefits from it, such as a senior who can no longer drive or a CEO pressed for time. They are ambassadors who play a key role in social diffusion. Offer them benefits and incentives.


Security threat as seen by the ecosystem

From insurance companies to specialized journalists to car manufacturers, potential hacks are a concern for the whole mobility ecosystem:

  • Munich Re, the world’ second-largest reinsurer, found that 55% of corporate risk managers surveyed named cybersecurity as their top concern for autonomous vehicles and 65% said their companies have done nothing to prepare for the emergence of autonomous vehicles in the auto market.
  • In 2015, Chrysler had to recall 1.4 million Jeeps when hackers demonstrated to Wired magazine how easily they could remotely take control of the vehicle’s digital systems. A French car consumer group estimates that 74% of vehicles stolen in the country were electronically hacked (the Smart Fortwo is a favourite of thieves).
  • Techcrunch thinks cybersecurity is the biggest threat facing autonomous vehicles.


Hope from the IT pros

Movin’On participants suggested car manufacturers need to learn a few tricks from IT pros:

  • Go on the offensive, use hacker competitions as a method for testing a vehicle’s vulnerability to cyber attacks
  • Provide lifelong support for software updates
  • Have a gatekeeper, only allow accredited professionals access to user data
  • Give users opt in/out data options


Cybersecurity in connected and automated cars is one of the many topics that touches the entire sustainable mobility ecosystem, from citizen to CEO. For more thought-provoking, action-oriented content, take a look at the Movin’On Minutes and sign up for our newsletter.