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A Tesla Model S gets hacked, but the automaker has a quick fix

Over-the-air software updates address the security risk

Published: August 06, 2015 02:45 PM

Car hacking is back in the news, this time with two enterprising programmers making a splash by accessing the systems in a Tesla Model S. As with other recent high-profile stories, this is a case where White Hat hackers were testing security protocols, which started with physical access to the car. This was not a criminal scenario, where a high-tech bandit was able to take over a random car remotely.

This follows a hack in late July of a late-model Jeep Cherokee's infotainment system, after which Fiat-Chrysler Automobiles announced a voluntary safety recall of 1.4 million vehicles.

The common theme in these recent cases is that the skilled hackers identified vulnerabilities and notified automakers of the hack. Solutions were quickly developed for at-risk car owners, sometimes by the automakers and sometimes in collaboration with the hackers.

Many of these developments—including a recent hack of GM’s OnStar RemoteLink system—will be part of presentations will be made at the upcoming Def Con hacking convention in Las Vegas.

To be sure, the rapid computerization and connectivity with cars has opened up new channels for mischief, but they have also enabled innovative solutions.

For instance, with the recalled Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, and Ram vehicles, car owners can perform the system upgrade themselves, akin to a software patch on a computer.

Owners can enter the Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN, of their car online and download the update. We performed this update on our Chrysler 200, and the whole process was straightforward and only took a few minutes. Customers affected by the recall can also receive a USB device that they may use to upgrade vehicle software and add security features.

Tesla has pushed out an update that is delivered wirelessly to the cars. A Tesla spokesperson explains:

“Our over-the-air software updates remotely add new features and functionality to Model S. Similarly to how you receive updates to your smartphone, Model S owners download these updates from Tesla via Wi-Fi or a cellular connection. A button will pop up on a Model S’ 17-inch touch screen, and an owner can select a time to download the latest version of software. The ability to receive these features and fixes is free for the life of the vehicle and is one more way that Tesla is redefining auto-ownership.”

Concerned about your car getting hacked?

Add a comment below to tell us what automakers should be required to do to minimize the risk of cyber crime.

The hacking safety net

Consumer Reports visited the Ohio lab of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this past spring, where a team of engineers spends their days hacking into vehicles.

NHTSA’s computer engineers are able to perform their hacks thanks to high-powered engineering talent, intimate knowledge of the car’s software coding, unlimited access to the car, and a hard-wired connection to the car’s control center.

NHTSA Electronics Project Engineer Frank Barickman is not aware of any real-world hack without physical access to a car—despite what a consumer might conclude from certain news reports and online videos.

In concert with NHTSA, a consortium of automakers is working to combat the threat of cyber attacks, through the planned formation of an industry Information Sharing and Analysis Center, or ISAC. The automotive ISAC will also address the larger issue of consumer data privacy.

We applaud the automakers for rapidly addressing these identified vulnerabilities and support the government efforts to protect motorists.

Read our complete Tesla Model S road test.




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