Recalls: A Recurring Event with Computerized Vehicles
About once a week, the media reports that between 1,000 to 100,000 autos are being recalled for a defect that might cause the owner a problem. These issues range from Volkswagon (VW) diesels with software that allow the vehicles to “cheat” and pass an emissions test when they shouldn’t; to General Motors (GM) cars with faulty ignition switches that suddenly disable vehicles in heavy traffic; to faulty exploding air bags. Many of the recalls involve computerized systems in newer model automobiles.
The New York Times* reported, “New high-end cars are among the most sophisticated machines on the planet, containing 100 million or more lines of [computer] code. Compare that with about 60 million lines of code in all of Facebook, or 50 million in the Large Hadron Collider [CERN, Geneva Switzerland].” The Times calls the vast amount of computerized data, “the weak spot,” and that “the code that runs new cars is susceptible to manipulation, by hackers or automakers themselves.” With the new “driverless” vehicles being promoted by Google and other computer firms, the car, not of tomorrow but of today, can communicate with other vehicles, traffic signals and road hazards. In fact, it can drive and park itself.
“New car sophistication brings numerous benefits that include forward-collision warning systems and automatic emergency braking that keep drivers safer. New technology, however, brings with it new risks and opportunities for malevolence. The authors continue, “Carmakers and consumers are also at risk. Dr. Patel [computer science professor at the University of Washington in Seattle] has worked with security researchers who have shown it is possible to disable a car’s brakes with an infected MP3 file inserted into a car’s CD player. A hacking demonstration by security researchers exposed how vulnerable new Jeep Cherokees can be. A series of software-related recalls has raised safety concerns and cost automakers millions of dollars.”
Sophisticated Systems Lead to Costly Insurance and Repairs
The myriad “black box” sealed computerized systems in a 21st-century vehicle make the vehicle more expensive to purchase and more difficult to insure. When such a sophisticated vehicle is damaged, it falls to the material damage appraiser to estimate repair costs. When computerized systems are damaged, even a minor accident could make the vehicle a “constructive total loss” due to the costs of finding, removing and testing the computerized components. Appraisers of the future could have to be computer-technology specialists as well as accurate in estimating auto body damages. Rear or front bumpers could even come with anything from warning systems to cameras. It will be increasingly difficult to find comparable after-market or used parts for repairs.
The computer hacking problem of 21st-century vehicles is even more complex. Newer automobiles can be unlocked and engines started while the driver is many yards from the vehicle. Since computers in the locks and ignition can be triggered by the key device, a hacker can also activate these systems and steal the car. Most such systems attempt to protect against hacking. However, today’s sophisticated cyber criminals find ways to enter, start, and drive a vehicle without even getting into it.
*David Gelles, Hiroko Tabuchi and Matthew Dolan, “The Weak Spot Under the Hood,” Sunday Business Section, The New York Times, September 27, 2015.