When two hackers took command of a Jeep Cherokee while journalist Andy Greenberg was driving it on public roads, an exploit revealed last week in a Wired magazine story, everything changed.
Car hacking got real.
This wasn't professors controlling secondary functions while plugged into the auxiliary port of a vehicle. This wasn't CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl in a Chevy knocking over parking lot cones in slow motion.
This was two professional hackers at home using the Internet and software they developed to seize control of the engine and transmission of an unmodified 2014 Cherokee moving 70 mph on a highway and slow it to a crawl. They exploited the infotainment system's Internet connectivity and could rewrite its internal firmware to gain control over critical systems.
In this case, hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek are self-described white hats and had shared information with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles for months. The automaker released a software patch for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable 2013 and 2014 vehicles before the Wired piece broke.
The story prompted quick reaction. Two senators introduced a bill to require federal standards for vehicle security. NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind declared, "Cybersecurity and privacy must be high-priority items."
Automakers and suppliers already face huge capital and engineering resource challenges to develop multiple fuel-saving technologies by the 2025 model year. Now they must also make vehicle security a higher priority.
The auto industry can take some actions immediately. For starters, engineers designing parts to withstand such threats as heat, cold and vibration must learn to think like hackers and defend against malicious actions, too.
Automakers must be able to "push" software fixes to improve vehicles wirelessly, rather than asking customers to go to dealers for every improvement.
Automakers should bolster firewalls separating critical controls from connected infotainment features. And automakers must clearly communicate their security efforts to consumers, lest customers lose confidence in their vehicles.