The invention and mass production of the automobile gave people the power to control where they could go. The Ford Model T was the first commercially successful automobile, selling 15 million units between 1908 and 1927, using interchangeable parts and the assembly line to mass produce cars and reduce the time of production from 12 hours to 93 minutes. This allowed automobiles—formerly toys of the rich—to be owned by just about anyone. Ford also revolutionized labor standards by making use of the assembly line and efficiently dividing up the manpower to manufacture his product.
Ford famously said of his invention, “I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
Cars weren’t only tools to get you from Point A to Point B. They also evolved to become mobile entertainment centers. By 1930, the car radio was introduced by brothers Paul and Joseph Galvin, alongside William Lear. The car radio was called the Motorola and made its way into every automobile by the 1950s. This was quickly followed by cassette tapes in 1964, CD tapes in the 1980s, and MP3 players by the beginning of the new decade. The global positioning satellite (GPS) systems also made their way into cars with the Mazda Eunos Cosmo in 1990. By the turn of the century, tech was throwing itself at cars at rapid speed, making the fusion between the two inevitable. In addition to all the mentioned tech, in-car Internet, in-car televisions, and more were becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Fast forward to the 2010s, and you have self-driving cars. One of the main benefits is to give people peace of mind as they commute to work or run errands. Google’s foray into the space, while still in its experimental stage, has proven that car tech has advanced far enough to not even require someone to drive the car. Driverless cars are being tested in various cities around the world. Elon Musk even mentioned that Tesla is on the brink of a driverless car, which could mean one can avail of the sustainability of electric cars with the convenience of not having to drive it.
However, all this tech may be its own undoing. Chrysler recently recalled 1.4 million vehicles after security experts proved that they could hack and control a 2015 Jeep Cherokee. Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek, two security experts, said that any car with the current technology in it—which could have as many as 200 electronic control units (ECUs)—could be a target. “We could have easily done the same thing on one of the hundreds of vulnerable vehicles on the road,” Miller told Computer World.
How did they do it? Miller and Valasek acquired access to the car’s technology through the cellular connection on the car. While ethical hackers such as Miller and Valasek are helping car manufacturers patch security holes in their in-car tech, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is also looking into making cars hack-proof.
Security experts have been warning people for years about connecting everything to the Internet (a concept called the Internet of Things), but according to the Washington Post, car manufacturers can stay ahead of the dark side of the Internet for one reason: variety. There are huge differences between car models from one year to the next (even from the same manufacturer), meaning that hackers would have to develop a different strategy to hack into each model, giving manufacturers time to patch any security holes.
“They haven’t been able to weaponize it. They haven’t been able to package it yet so that it’s easily exploitable,” said former Ford global technologist John Ellis. “You can do it on a one-car basis. You can’t yet do it on a 100,000-car basis.” However, Ellis and his colleagues state that automobile development cycles tend to be lengthy. Without regularly updating the in-car software, hackers could still break in and cause problems.
Security experts said that a hacker-proof car would not be on the market until 2018 at the earliest. Replacing all the vulnerable cars on the road might also take several more decades. Government officials are seeking to combat this problem as soon as possible. “Cars are a major part of the Internet of Things,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). Markey, who also sits on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, has filed a bill in the Senate to apply cybersecurity standards to automobiles.
“We’ve moved from an era of combustion engines to computerized engines, but we haven’t put into place the proper protections against hackers and data trackers,” Markey added. The courts and legal system also have an interest—hacked cars could also injure drivers and passengers, prompting lawsuits against the automotive industry.
While tech and automobiles have a symbiotic relationship, not all are excited about having excessive tech in cars. Ellis, in particular, pointed out how car manufacturers are so disconnected from the very tech that they put in their cars. “Am I scared of this near future? Sure,” Ellis said. “I’m scared because car manufacturers don’t get software. This isn’t a car problem. It’s a software and business model problem.”