Opinion by Jonny Evans

Just say no to connected cars

Around 5% of new vehicles already include some form of embedded technology inside. But have you thought about the consequences?

Opinion by Jonny Evans

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There is a growing chance your next vehicle will be a connected car, augmented with Internet-connected intelligent systems and services.

By 2017, every new car sold in Europe will be required to have an embedded SIM and built-in emergency calling features. “By 2018, most new vehicles will come with integrated apps as standard,” said Juniper Research analyst, Anthony Cox. By 2024, Analysys Mason expects 89% of new cars will include embedded connectivity.

While I don’t imagine anyone will buy these vehicles for making on-dash Facebook updates or the chance to shop online while driving, many people may want the convenience of always-available, contextual, predictive navigation to get them from Point A to Point B. Many will welcome the potential these vehicles have to cut fuel bills and lower CO2 emissions (4.8 billion hours were wasted by U.S. drivers trapped in traffic congestion in 2010). These reductions are of great significance to combat climate change; each of the over 1 billion cars in use today is estimated to release six tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year. We’re choking the planet.

But for all the convenience, there are consequences.

Hacked cars

Every connected vehicle will likely have a built-in SIM to take you online. At first these things will be benign, notifying emergency services in the event you face breakdown or accident and picking up over-the-air software upgrades to add features to your vehicle.

However, where there is connectivity, there is a vulnerable endpoint, and these must be protected. Sky news claimed that around half of 89,000 London vehicles broken into or stolen in 2013 were electronically hacked. As cars become more connected, they will become a new golden paradise to hackers. Think beyond car theft —hacked cars driving their occupants into the sea, or a bank manager’s family kidnapped by their car and held until the vaults are emptied. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) researchers have already shown how they can take control of cars, forcing them to brake, accelerate or steer. Just because these things haven’t happened yet doesn’t mean they won’t, and all concerned must wake up and put protection in place. The sorry truth today is that big Internet of Things device manufacturers continue to insist on using weak default passwords like 1234. Car consumers must get ready for a whole new set of on-the-road car risks in exchange for a little convenience.

Maintenance bullies

Telematic sensors in connected cars will be able to let you know when a fault is emerging before it becomes a problem. In some cases, these vehicles will book themselves in for servicing or be able to provide the kind of accurate information you need for better repair. There is a consequence for this convenience, of course. As car components become more electronically aware, they are likely to become more expensive, as will car service and repair. You’ll know your vehicle may spring a problem, but this doesn’t mean you’ll have the cash in hand to fix it.

The long arm of the law

As the technology evolves, there’s every chance that your car will be used to hit you with parking enforcement notices and/or speeding fines. They may just stop operating if they think you are driving erratically. What about vehicle checks? On a state-by-state basis, who will set the parameters for these? Will we see vehicles automatically submitting to checks simply because their registered owner lives life in a different skin tone? There is much opportunity for mendacity and few safeguards in place to prevent such abuse.

Paranoia? Not really. Did you miss Ford executive vice president Jim Farley last year saying, “We know everyone who breaks the law. We know when you're doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you're doing.” Ford tried to spin the story away, but why was this said? What systems will connected-car makers put in place to protect customer privacy if law enforcement demands access to these records? Who else will get this data, and how might it be used? Will the FBI demand a back door to your car?

Insurance spies

Five million people worldwide use pay-as-you-drive insurance policies. These are particularly popular among younger drivers, who otherwise get punitive insurance costs. Get ready, then, for insurance firms to offer you similar policies tied to their increasingly granular knowledge of your driving habits. While this will be good in terms of making lower car insurance payments, do you really think insurance firms will be happy to lose the car insurance cash cow without a fight? Of course they won’t — get ready to save on vehicle insurance but see other insurance costs climb. Health? House? Life? One thing’s for sure: You seldom hold the cards when dealing with insurers. How high will those premiums go on the strength of one mistake?

The data you could sell with your vehicle

“Farewell, much-loved car,” she cried as she waved the vehicle off with its new owner behind the wheel. It was two weeks before she realized that the new owner had managed to use the information she’d left inside her car’s systems to crack into her bank account and take the money he had paid back — and then some.

Hyperbole? Possibly, but think about the steps you have to take when selling any other computer or passing on your phone. You must never neglect to disconnect the system from all your existing logins and accounts, delete the contacts and other data you have stored there, etc. We may know we have to do this, but many of us fail to put it into practice. Smart cars will connect to a wide range of software and services using single account logins. They will carry all your accounts and passwords — ironically, one day, the most valuable thing about your connected car may be the access it gives to your personal details, bank accounts and enterprise intranet. Smart cars must offer a quick and easy way to delete all this information, even remotely. After all, how often do you leave your bank payment card parked unprotected in the street? And what are the consequences of remotely immobilizing a stolen vehicle when it is running at top speed down a crowded freeway? Are you responsible for the consequential accident, or does responsibility lie with the thief? Significant legal and judicial issues must be resolved.

We are at a moment of huge opportunity for connected vehicles, but for all the hype about convenience, the negative consequences could outweigh such convenience if those developing the connected future don’t take steps today to face the problems they are also creating.

Jonny Evans is an independent journalist/blogger who first got online in 1993. He's author of Computerworld's AppleHolic blog and also writes for others in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. Winner of an Azbee Award in 2010, Jonny enjoys new and disruptive technology and likes music almost as much as he likes his large and shiny dog.

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