There’s something wrong with the conversation around connected and autonomous cars. Fueled by science fiction concepts, and unrealistic expectations, the public both under- and-overestimates the scope of the automation shift that’s coming to our roads. Overestimates because SAE level 5* vehicles are still years, if not decades, away from becoming the prevalent mode of transportation. Underestimates because SAE level 3 is already at our doorstep.

Yet there’s one field which transcends industry misperceptions and lack of knowledge – fear. The potential customers are often afraid to relinquish control of their vehicle, with the inherent mistrust of computers amplified by newspaper headlines about the dangers of cyberattacks. Proof-of-concept attacks are, indeed, quite common in the past few years – with every part of the attack surface in a connected car prodded for vulnerabilities.


More Options, More Attack Vectors

Unfortunately, as time passes it will not be easier to secure the connected and autonomous cars, but harder. To understand why, we need to remember that vehicle manufacturers are huge integrators – combining hundreds of hardware and software components from dozens of providers into one car. As the market is still in development, they have relatively limited number of puzzle pieces ready for integration. But in the next few years, it’s poised to get much, much bigger.


The result will be an exponential increase in the number of hardware/software combinations that will find their way into one car. Which is challenge for all involved parties. Newcomers who want to find their place in a connected car would have to convince manufacturers that their solution isn’t going to endanger the passenger. Vehicle manufacturers, on the other hand, are very risk averse at all times, which – and they understand it as well – hinders their ability to innovate.


Update your Car

Another consequence of making a car connected is the constant need to update it. With lifecycles of 7-15 years, connected vehicles need to not only be future-proof, but constantly updated. And while on the one hand it means that every vulnerability can be patched, it also means that every patch can introduce a vulnerability. Over-the-Air (OTA) updates being the preferred way to update software and firmware, this also means that the car has to be always connected to the internet – creating a door for an attacker to knock on.


The industry at large will undoubtedly find it difficult to move from SAE 3 to SAE 5 under the constant threat of attack. Each step forward will bring with it more risk, and more liability. Ironically, the fact that autonomous vehicles are much safer under standard driving conditions is not going to help them. More on that next time. For now, we’ll say that the automotive industry should ramp up its security-mindedness, especially while the public is still not used to, and afraid of, autonomous vehicles.


At Cybellum, we provide a solution that can solve part of this problem, by enabling integrators to assess risk of any software they’re considering integrating into their product, prior to actual integration.


By Michael Engstler

Cybellum CTO and co-founder. An Entrepreneur, skilled in defensive and offensive cyber security, experienced in leading large scale R&D projects throughout all stages of design, development and deployment. Served as an officer in Israel’s elite intelligence corps for many years in various R&D and management positions, receiving Outstanding Officer Honor for my service.