Fear often outpaces reality. If any of your friends outside the auto industry have fretted that a computer hacker could take control of a car and plunge it off a bridge, you know what I’m talking about.
I understand this fear. People are used to having their credit card numbers and passwords stolen by hackers, but that’s rarely a matter of life and death.
This is different. It’s scary.
And yet, every time that I talk to an in-car security expert, I ask the same question: Have you heard of a case in which an ordinary person’s car was hacked in the real world -- not as an experiment? So far, the answer has been no.
So it feels a lot like hysteria. As a country, we lose more than 30,000 people to traffic accidents every year, and incur hundreds of billions of dollars in economic costs -- and we’re going to get worked up about this?
Now, sure enough, the lawyers are getting involved.
This week, Dallas-based attorney Marc Stanley slapped Ford, General Motors and Toyota with a proposed class-action lawsuit on behalf of three car owners, accusing the automakers of a negligent response to the risk of hacking.
“They’ve known about this since at least 2013, and they haven’t done anything,” Stanley, a former president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association, said in an interview.
It seems like a long shot to me. To win a lawsuit, a plaintiff generally needs to show some sort of injury -- even psychological trauma from a car-hacking incident might be enough. But none of Stanley’s plaintiffs are victims of car hacking, and none of them have reason to believe that they’re more at risk than any other driver.
Stanley said that doesn’t matter. He pointed to a February report by the office of Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that claimed that hackers could exploit vulnerabilities in a Bluetooth wireless connection, telematics systems such as GM’s OnStar or an Android smartphone paired to a car.
This risk was vividly shown in a segment on the TV news show “60 Minutes.” In the segment, Dan Kaufman, a researcher from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency demonstrated that he could spray the wiper fluid, beep the horn or kill the brakes of a car being driven by journalist Lesley Stahl.
“If you have a known vulnerability and there’s this much at stake, it needs to be fixed,” Stanley said. “We don’t have to wait for a senator or a congressman or a judge to have their car hacked. We need to stop it now.”
It’s unclear whether car hacking is a looming crisis or simply hysteria. Either way, automakers and suppliers should consider it a huge risk, and patch any holes that bad guys could use to hack into customers’ cars. After all, the lawyers are watching.