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Securing the future of mobility Addressing cyber risk in self-driving cars and beyond

Release Date:2017-11-20

The promise of connected and self-driving cars: a future with no road accidents. But making the new mobility ecosystem secure and resilient means tackling an ever-expanding range of cybersecurity issues, as innovations expose automakers, providers, and passengers to potential data breaches and worse.

Introduction: An unwelcome passenger

Climbing into a car has long been among the riskier things that people do—famously, the least safe part of an airplane trip is the drive to the airport.1 So it’s likely no surprise that self-driving cars’ safety is one of their most often cited benefits. Indeed, many expect the emerging mobility ecosystem,2 with increasing shared access to transportation as well as autonomous technology, to all but eradicate routine accidents.

But as the future of mobility offers potential growth and new sources of value creation, it presents new types of risk. The very innovations that aim to enhance the way we move from place to place entail first-order cybersecurity challenges. And the dangers that promptly come to mind—such as hacked autonomous vehicles crashing3—only begin to scratch the surface; indeed, they may not even represent the most likely or high-stakes threats. Shared vehicles could hold data from hundreds of unique users, making them a ripe target for digital thieves. Connected and increasingly autonomous vehicles may provide new opportunities for malicious ransomware. And as mobility managers take the hassle out of travel by managing end-to-end trip planning, they could gain an increasingly holistic view of people’s lives, including where they go, when, and for what purpose, accumulating data and raising the stakes even further.

The path forward should incorporate a comprehensive approach to cybersecurity that makes connected vehicles and the associated ecosystems secure, vigilant, and resilient. This likely involves a radical change to how organizations address cybersecurity:

Secure. Establish risk-focused controls around the most sensitive assets, balancing the need to reduce risk, while also enabling productivity, business growth, and cost optimization.

Vigilant. Develop monitoring solutions focused on critical business processes. By integrating threat data, IT data, and business data, companies can equip themselves with context-rich alerts to help prioritize incident handling and streamline incident investigation.

Resilient. Rapidly adapt and respond to internal or external changes—opportunities, demands, disruptions, or threats—and continue operations with limited impact to the business.

Cyber risk poses perhaps the greatest threat to the future of mobility, and data governance, privacy, and protection will likely be of paramount importance as individuals and organizations move to make it a reality. Just as collision warning systems and anti-lock brakes haven’t eliminated all road mishaps, a world of shared and autonomous vehicles can never be risk-free. A key challenge for players in the mobility ecosystem lies in making the degree of risk acceptable to both consumers and regulators. As automakers, technology companies, governments, and others place bets on how and when the future of mobility may unfold, those moves could be for naught without a broad understanding of the myriad cyber threats likely to emerge—and a concrete plan to address them.

Where could the risks lie?

After a century of addressing mainly problems with engineering, automakers are facing a new set of challenges. Other industries are also dealing with cybersecurity issues, and players in the mobility ecosystem can look to similar solutions, although the specific implementation of those solutions would need to be carefully shaped to fit the auto industry’s unique needs.

What steps companies take also likely depend on which ecosystem roles they intend to play. In The future of mobility, we envisioned four co-existing future states of mobility: some quite similar to today’s landscape and others that posit more ambitious vehicle sharing and autonomous driving possibilities (see figure 1).4

The future states of mobility

Each of the four future states of mobility brings a unique set of data-related risks and, consequently, a unique set of challenges and required solutions.

Future state 1: This is the most conservative vision of the future, in which vehicles would remain individually owned and operated, much as most are today. Yet even here, vehicles are expected to become increasingly connected and data-centric (creation, consumption, analysis, etc.) and to employ advanced driver-assist technologies (stopping short of full autonomy). As vehicle designs advance, their security capabilities should evolve too. Enhanced security features will likely be based on in-vehicle technology and features already present in today’s cars. This enhanced security would need to secure current technology and features while continuing to evolve to protect the incremental changes that we expect providers to develop in future state 1.

Even today, many vehicles rely heavily on proprietary software that may already have numerous vulnerabilities. The average new vehicle relies on computer systems that utilize more than 100 million lines of software code,5 leading to cars that are increasingly sophisticated and connected—but also increasingly exposed (see sidebar, “Insider threats”). And it isn’t only the quantity of code that drives risk—it’s the quality. As companies accelerate change and innovation to differentiate themselves, it can be easy to sacrifice the rigor of end-to-end development and testing to beat competitors to the market. This shortsighted approach could increase the chance of system errors or security vulnerabilities, leading to potential recalls and reputational damage. New features will almost inevitably bring more integrated code from multiple sources and the potential for more vulnerabilities, with a corresponding need for vehicle manufacturers and software providers to redouble their focus on the integration, securing, and testing of components throughout the vehicle.6

Regulators, too, could be challenged as vehicle shortcomings increasingly arise from flawed code rather than faulty components. Some have already recognized the difficulty. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) administrator Mark Rosekind put it succinctly: “How many times have we talked about . . . millions of lines of code? There’s no way we’ll have the resources to look at that.”7

Future state 2: With the rise of the “sharing economy” and the growth of ridesharing and carsharing companies, a second potential future state sees the possibility of continued expansion of shared mobility, even as vehicles remain human-controlled.

We see glimpses of this future state today, providing a window into the potential cybersecurity challenges, but accelerating adoption could dramatically increase the scope, magnitude, and complexity of these threats. With the proliferation of social media, ridesharing, and other mobile applications, access to a consumer’s smart device can expose her to additional risks.

In particular, protecting the personal information of both drivers and riders becomes a high priority. Some nefarious parties would find this information valuable, and ridesharing and carsharing companies present an attractive target. Payment systems can expose credit and banking information to potential theft. Navigation and location information can compromise customer privacy, requiring providers to keep onboard communications secure.

As automotive companies and technology firms consider expanding their services to include shared mobility,13 they should consider the unique risks and cyber threats that accompany this business model.

Future state 3: This future state envisions the adoption of personally owned, fully self-driving cars. While much of the core autonomous functionality may be self-contained within the vehicle (making it relatively less vulnerable to attackers), self-driving vehicles would need to communicate with the outside world through sensors, V2X capabilities, GPS software, and other systems. As with future state 1, when working as intended, these connected cars may have the potential to help improve the passenger experience, but they also likely open up new vulnerabilities. Last year, security researchers were able to use a flaw found in an OEM-provided application to run down an electric vehicle’s battery, potentially stranding the vehicle owner.17 While this flaw was addressed, this example highlights an escalating threat landscape caused by increased connectivity. And in an autonomous vehicle, where the car’s systems would be fully in control of the vehicle, the potential damage caused by an intrusion or flaw could be fatal.

Autonomous vehicle developers currently protect their prototypes from these issues by having a human operator who takes control in the case of failure or fault, but this approach is not expected to be extended to consumer-owned vehicles. In particular, the Department of Transportation Automated Vehicles guidelines specify that, “Fall back strategies should take into account that . . . human drivers may be inattentive, under the influence of alcohol or other substances, drowsy, or physically impaired in some other manner.”18 Additionally, autonomous vehicles may operate in a mode where no human driver is present to take over in the case of failure—for example, if a self-driving car “delivers” itself to the shop for maintenance. The policy does not specify how autonomous vehicles should behave in these circumstances, and autonomous vehicle developers and researchers will have to work to ensure they develop a safe approach.

For some consumers, putting their safety into the hands of an automated vehicle would require a new level of trust in the security, integrity, and functionality of vehicle and infrastructure technologies. Autonomous cars are expected to have numerous onboard attack vectors, including radar, cameras, GPS, ultrasonic sensors, V2X, and other networking capabilities, not to mention the related infrastructure components and technologies on which these sensors may depend. The architectural and operational (think monitoring, vulnerability management, security operations, etc.) requirements for fully automated vehicles are considerably higher than for partially automated or assisted driving vehicles. Stout vehicle technology to support cybersecurity and individual privacy must be a primary concern.

Future state 4: Finally, an increase in car- and ridesharing and the maturation of vehicle automation could converge at a point of “accessible autonomy,” in which many individuals can reach destinations by simply requesting rides from nearby autonomous fleets. This future state is most likely to begin with urban commuters in large cities but could quickly spread as capabilities and consumer willingness expands. The adoption of these technologies could spur the emergence of an integrated intermodal mobility ecosystem that offers safer, cleaner, cheaper, and more convenient transportation.

This future state includes the same security vulnerabilities and personal data theft as other future states—and would present a problem of another order of magnitude, since a hacker breaching “smart” infrastructure or a large fleet of shared autonomous vehicles could inflict dramatically greater damage.

In every future state, cars and their occupants will likely need to place additional trust in onboard technology, raising the stakes for vehicle cybersecurity. Security researchers have highlighted vehicle vulnerabilities, engaging the interest (and possibly the imagination) of the public, regulators, elected officials, and many others. Successfully addressing those risks is expected to require both consensus on the overall standards to be met and a broad effort to make the future of mobility secure, vigilant, and resilient.

A path forward


While the possible advances that comprise the future of mobility bring with them significant new potential threats, the dangers are hardly insurmountable, partly due to a growing awareness of the importance of cybersecurity among the general public, federal, state, and local governments, as well as regulatory and standards bodies. One example: In 2016, the FBI and the NHTSA issued a warning to the general public and manufacturers of vehicles, vehicle components, and aftermarket devices to “maintain awareness of potential issues and cybersecurity threats related to connected vehicle technologies in modern vehicles.”22 The NHTSA also convened a public roundtable in January 2016 to facilitate a diverse stakeholder discussion on vehicle cybersecurity topics. Attendees included representatives of 17 automotive OEMs, 25 government entities, and 13 industry associations.23

This increase in awareness comes at an opportune time. As the private sector and governments work to make the future of mobility a reality, the extended global auto industry faces what most consider an urgent need to establish cybersecurity standards to create current baselines for today’s needs—as well as to prepare for future software development and distribution. Thankfully, early efforts are already under way. In 2015, the Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center formed to enhance cybersecurity awareness, share information about threats, and improve coordination across the global auto industry.24 The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of Global Automakers also developed a “Framework for Automotive Cybersecurity Best Practices.”25

While these are important early steps, more can be done. The current efforts are voluntary, and the organizing groups’ memberships are limited to auto OEMs and major suppliers—a narrow focus considering that the future mobility ecosystem is expected to cut across traditional industry lines and include players from technology, telecom, media, insurance, finance, and beyond. A much more diverse consortium of actors would be needed to effectively set standards that can bridge tomorrow’s diverse mobility options. Indeed, given that this new wave of technology is still in its infancy, current technology vendors seem well positioned to shape the relevant standards.

The technology industry has shown the path forward on many occasions in the past. One of the better examples is how the then-players in the communications industry came together and formed the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). The Bluetooth SIG—a not-for-profit, non-stock corporation—oversees the development of Bluetooth standards and the licensing of Bluetooth technologies and trademarks to manufacturers.26 Now, any company incorporating Bluetooth wireless technology into its products must become a member.

What makes the Bluetooth SIG so effective is its control of the specifications for the technology, requiring that members certify their products as compliant with the standards. SIG members declare their compliance to both the Bluetooth Patent/Copyright License Agreement and Bluetooth Trademark License Agreement.27 The enforcement program helps to protect all SIG members by confirming that all Bluetooth products are properly qualified, declared, and branded. The enforcement program monitors the market and performs monthly audits to ensure that members are using trademarks in accordance with the Bluetooth brand guide and selling goods and services that have successfully completed both the Bluetooth qualification and declaration process.28

Granted, creating a similar entity for connected and autonomous vehicles would be no small feat—it would require the myriad groups independently developing self-driving systems to come together and agree on certain baseline features. But the advantages could be significant—not least, helping to assure a possibly skittish public that developers are adopting a rigorous and tightly controlled process for establishing the safety and integrity of autonomous vehicle systems.


Standards alone likely aren’t enough to protect the future of mobility: Automakers and other manufacturers will still need to build secure components and provide for their safe interactions. The industry standard has been to bench-test vehicle components on a per-component basis, assessing vulnerabilities in software and firmware, over-the-air updates, and communications channels. Often, individual modules are farmed out to specialists familiar with that particular component, bringing in multiple partners for the different components. Integrating these independently developed components together as one product can present multiple challenges. First, communication between components could reveal attack vectors that are not present when tested independently. For example, a module may fail if sent messages are invalid or malformed. Second, unexpected communication could open up a manufacturer or their partners’ intellectual property to malicious attacks. Failing to securely integrate these component parts could expose an easy attack vector.

Figure 2 is a representation of the complete connected vehicle, showing how the individual components interact with one another. A failure in one component often results in a cascading effect, putting both the driver and others in the vehicle’s path in a precarious situation.

As an example, if the vehicle communication busses break down, then the real-time vehicle systems would not be able to transmit vital situational awareness to the advanced vehicle systems. If the advanced vehicle systems do not receive the information, then the integrated vehicle security systems that control physical components such as braking, acceleration/deceleration, and crash avoidance would fail to react.

Below is a summary description of the components in the wheel to provide a full perspective of each component’s key functions and the associated risks.

Assessing the connected vehicle

  • Vehicle communication busses. Providers should rigorously test Controller Area Network, Internet Protocol, 2Wire, Ethernet, and other vendor-specific communication bus systems to identify security vulnerabilities impacting communications between software and hardware components.

  • Mobile applications. Vehicle remote applications on handheld devices and the onboard dash applications that interact with them should be assessed to verify end-to-end security. With the proliferation of mobile apps and the integration with advanced vehicular systems, this risk continues to escalate.

  • Connected vehicle services. Enterprise services, sensor communications, over-the-air firmware updates, V2V, and V2X communications provide potential attack surfaces that providers should review for end-to-end security weaknesses. Other common attack vectors include vehicle locator, remote unlocking and starting, and fleet health monitoring.

  • Integrated vehicle security. Providers and automakers should consider way to block attacks on the vehicle’s physical security systems, such as the immobilizer, alarm systems, and unlocking systems. Additionally, attacks over radio frequency, such as replay and denial of service for key fob messages, should be considered and mitigated.

  • Infotainment systems. The vehicle’s head unit, navigation system, USB, CD/DVD, and other physical interfaces are easily accessible and offer a potential foothold for hackers to enter the system with direct access to onboard components and firmware.

  • Wireless communications. Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Near Field Communication, and mobile Internet technologies provide many additional possible paths into the connected vehicle and should be examined for weaknesses and vulnerabilities.

  • Advanced/autonomous vehicle systems (including semi- and fully autonomous driving capabilities). Advanced connected vehicle systems, such as radar, cameras, driving and parking assistance systems, and collision prevention systems, offer attackers a connection that bridges the gap from a cyber-attack to a physical one. Under hacker control, these systems can be used to undermine fundamental vehicle safety. This makes confirming their integrity paramount to the vehicle’s overall safety.

  • Firmware. Hackers can extract and analyze Electronic Control Unit firmware. This allows for the discovery of possible vulnerabilities built into the firmware, as well as the extraction of sensitive data, such as encryption keys. Ensuring that these files are protected and ***per-resistant is critical to overall system security.

Throughout the development process, companies should strive to achieve three cardinal virtues of cyber risk management: becoming securevigilant, and resilient. In the spirit of “prevention” being worth more than a “cure,” effective risk management begins with securing critical components and preventing system breaches or compromises. Making a system secure is not typically a once-and-for-all proposition. Hardware and software degrade over time, and both the nature and intensity of attacks can change. Consequently, providers should complement security with vigilance—monitoring to determine whether a system is still secure or has been compromised. Finally, when a breach occurs, limiting the damage and reestablishing normal operations are much more easily and effectively achieved when there are processes in place to promptly neutralize threats, prevent further spread, and recover.29


Securing the new mobility ecosystem is a daunting challenge, and the stakes are high. In a swiftly changing world, the future of mobility continues to become more complex, leaving many questions unanswered and many more unasked. As many automakers and technology companies push rapidly toward a world of shared autonomous vehicles, consumers are approaching the prospect of self-driving cars with caution.30 Without assurances that vehicles will function safely and securely, those investments could be for naught.

Thankfully, many of the cyber risks posed by the future of mobility have been confronted before. By taking the hard-earned lessons learned from other industries, the extended auto industry can keep itself ahead of hackers and other adversaries. A few of the steps to take :

  • Leverage enterprise IT processes for data privacy and data decommissioning

  • Implement encryption and code signing to protect the integrity of system software

  • Develop standards of practice for secure development of critical vehicle systems

  • Enforce developed standards on their suppliers, similar to payment card processors

By taking these cues from others that have grappled with securing critical digital infrastructure—including current efforts to protect connected cars—the extended global auto industry can help make hopping into a shared driverless car as blasé as getting behind the wheel is today.

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