Tesla touts environmental friendliness and savings on gas costs as two of the big perks of its electric cars. But security may turn out to be a winning feature as well.
In the last few weeks, a worrying trend has emerged in which hackers have found ways to hijack control of vehicles’ onboard computers. In July, hackers were able to remotely access a Jeep Cherokee SUV through its on-board entertainment system, taking control of its steering, transmission and brakes. This week, researchers executed a similar hack into the Tesla Model S’s infotainment system; they were able to shut off the vehicle’s engine with a keystroke (the Tesla attack required physical access to the vehicle).
But the big difference between these scenarios is what happened next. Fiat Chrysler had to recall 1.4 million Jeeps that could potentially be vulnerable to the hack, but the “recall” actually amounted to mailing Jeep owners a USB stick that they could plug into their vehicle’s dashboard port in order to give the car the necessary patch. Tesla, on the other hand, was able to automatically send a patch to all its Model S vehicles on Wednesday through an over-the-air update, a method more akin to how your smartphone gets software fixes.
The advantage for Tesla here is obvious. There’s no telling how many people will actually bother plugging in Jeep’s USB stick, but it probably won’t be 1.4 million. In the Model S, drivers just click “yes” to an on-screen prompt offering a software upgrade with the fix.
As automakers race to make their vehicles behave more like smartphones, they’ll have to deal with the security risks that come along with connecting to the Internet. Tesla is a step ahead with its ability to widely distribute updates with the press of a button. But other companies are sure to follow suit quickly. Everyone from Ford to General Motors is working to bring robust over-the-air updates to their cars in the coming years.