WASHINGTON -- In a world in which hackers track computer keystrokes to steal credit card numbers and the government snoops on phone calls and e-mails, it's not so hard to imagine a laptop-wielding bad guy remotely wresting control of a car and wreaking havoc.
Car hacking has become a staple of Hollywood action movies, such as this year's Fast & Furious 6, in which the villains take over cars' electronics in order to crash them. It is also becoming an obsession on Capitol Hill, even though there has never been a documented case of a car being maliciously hacked in the real world.
That kind of spotlight from Congress and the media could prod the industry to take the threat of hacking more seriously, but it could just as well terrify the public before the industry has a chance to do much about it.
That would be bad news for automakers, which over the next few years want to create a unified mobile communications network, a so-called Internet of cars, to help prevent crashes and deliver a host of new in-vehicle services.
For automakers, the heat is on. Just last week, U.S. Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., sent letters to the chiefs of 20 major auto brands, asking dozens of questions about how they plan to protect cars against breaches once large numbers of Wi-Fi-enabled vehicles start talking to one another and connecting to online services, as computers do.
"As vehicles become more integrated with wireless technology," Markey wrote in his seven-page letter, "there are more avenues through which a hacker could introduce malicious code and more avenues through which a driver's basic right to privacy could be compromised."