WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- Rising cybersecurity risks to drivers as their cars become increasingly powered by and connected to computers have prompted federal auto-safety regulators to start a new office focusing on the threat.
"These interconnected electronics systems are creating opportunities to improve vehicle safety and reliability, but are also creating new and different safety and cybersecurity risks," David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in testimony before a Senate Commerce Committee hearing today. "We don't want to be behind the eight ball."
A new office within the agency to research vehicle-electronics safety will look at risks to the systems in cars and those that communicate with other vehicles.
NHTSA is conducting a pilot project in Ann Arbor, Mich., of so-called talking-car technology intended to prevent crashes.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said while he's excited about safety improvements through technology, he's concerned about new risks including hacking.
"As our cars become more connected -- to the Internet, to wireless networks, with each other, and with our infrastructure -- are they at risk of catastrophic cyber attacks?" Rockefeller asked.
Regulators are preparing for the possibility that cars could be accessed remotely in the future, though now a person would need to have physical access to a vehicle to redirect its electronic functions, Strickland said.
"If there is a chance of it happening, we have to address it," Strickland told reporters after leaving the hearing.
NHTSA, part of the U.S. Transportation Department, was criticized by Congress and safety advocates in 2010 for lacking expertise in automotive electronics during hearings about Toyota Motor Corp.'s unintended-acceleration recalls.
No electronic cause was found for the incidents after the agency asked NASA and the National Academy of Sciences for help with the probe.
Cars and light trucks are increasingly controlled electronically rather than mechanically, from acceleration and starting to rolling down the windows. Infotainment systems connect drivers to satellite and wireless networks.
Today's typical luxury car has more than 100 million lines of computer code, while software and electronics account for 40 percent of the car's cost and half of warranty claims, said John D. Lee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's industrial and systems engineering department.
Lee also testified at today's hearing in Washington.
NHTSA and others developing new vehicle-control technologies need consumers to accept them if they're to penetrate the market and provide safety benefits, Strickland said.
If consumers don't trust the technology, they won't buy it, he said.
"Cybersecurity is hard," he told reporters. "Even the best systems in the world can be compromised, as we have seen."