7 car tech nightmares that will ruin your life

20th Nov 2012 | 12:01

7 car tech nightmares that will ruin your life

Cars are getting techier by the day. What's the worst that could happen? Yup, it's carmageddon!

The intelligent, connected car is an idea we love on TechRadar. But wherever there's new tech, there are bad guys to exploit it or things that can go wrong.

So, don your tin foil hats and start worrying. Here's TechRadar's top 7 car-tech nightmares.

1. Cars will become as (un)reliable as computers

Bill Gates allegedly once claimed that if Microsoft made cars, they'd cost $25 and do 1,000mpg. To which Jack Welch, head honcho of US car maker of GM, later retorted that if Microsoft made cars they'd crash twice a day and the airbag would ask if you're sure before deploying.

That was then. Today, cars and computing are on a convergence - you could say collision - course. Some cars have up to 150 or more computer chips on board. Renault, to take just one recent example, has chosen Google's Android OS to power its in-car kit.

The implication, then, is that cars will become increasingly reliant on computing for everything they do. And our experience of computing in just about every other walk of life is that it's far from 100 per cent reliable. How soon before an operating system crash turns into one that hurts more than just a few files?


2. Malware takes on a whole new meaning

If cars could soon be crashing due to sheer computational complexity and human error in design and engineering, what about the scope for good old malice?

With cars becoming increasingly computerised, internet-connected and also sharing software platforms with more commonly used computing devices, can it really be long before viruses and other malware begins to target cars? Also, more and more cars are internet-connected, so an infection could happen at almost any moment.

If you start to think laterally, all sorts of sinister opportunities arise, and not just the apocalyptic, life-threatening sort. Imagine a future where all tyres have RFIDs. Could a tyre company send out a virus that detected tyres from rival companies and then hack the target vehicle to encourage faster tyre wear? If you can imagine it, maybe it's possible.

We've spoken to engineers at several car makers and they assure us that the way systems are compartmentalised and firewalled means it simply isn't possible for a virus to migrate from, say, the entertainment kit to a more safety-critical system like cruise control or lane departure correction.

But isn't that what they always say – that it could never happen – just before Armageddon strikes? You know it's true!

Car theft

3. Your car will get nicked by cyber thieves

The happy news is that this is already happening. Due to legislation drawn up with the best intentions and pertaining to easy access to the on-board diagnostic port, it's now possible to smash a a quarter light, plug in a cable and gain full operational access within a few moments.

If that's today, the nightmare scenario for tomorrow's connected cars is thieves doing the same job wirelessly over the internet, avoiding the need for any kind of break in. They simply hack and prime the car from a remote location and nip over when it's ready for pinching. WIth self-driving cars on the way, it's not inconceivable that thieves might find a way of driving your car away without even being present at the scene.

Already, cars from several brands can be unlocked remotely via a cellular connection. Seriously, people, it's going to happen.

4. Your bunny-boiling ex will track you via GPS

If that sounds like a bad movie plot, try this for size. A self-contained GPS device that attaches to cars in an instant courtesy of a magnetic pad can be had for as little as £100.

The Back2you personal GPS tracker is a perfect example. Smaller than a pack of cards, it has both GPS and a GSM/GPRS cellular adapter. Simply slap it onto a target vehicle – any steel bodied car is a suitable target – and then all that's required is a call to the device's mobile number.

It will then reply with a text revealing its current location and speed. It will even drop its dastardly master a text when it's running low on battery charge.

5. Black boxes will become compulsory

Black boxes or devices that record various operational parameters and activities are generally seen as a good thing. They're commonly used in commercial aviation and provide crucial insight into the cause for any crash.

The same could very soon apply to cars. The technology is relatively simple. Indeed, some insurers are already experimenting with the idea with a view to setting premiums based on driving style. It's not a big step from there to imagine black boxes becoming compulsory.

On the face of it, the safety argument seems pretty compelling. On the other hand, do you really want electronic eyes watching your every move? It's the classic personal freedom versus broader public safety argument and we've an inkling the latter will eventually win out.

Traffic jam

6. Cyberjams and worse

Stories involving dunderheaded drivers who sheepishly follow satnav directions hundreds miles off course, into rivers, over cliffs and worse are already common place. It's classic one-last-thing local news bulletin material.

But in a world where cars are increasingly connected and automated, the scope for serious carnage increases. Take, for instance, the débâcle of Apple's own mapping software introduced with the iPhone 5 and iOS 6. Users reported widespread errors in mapping data.

Then factor in a future where in-car system are increasing powered by smartphones. Already, models from MINI, Vauxhall, Mercedes and others are already available with smartphone-powered nav.

You're then in a situation where a cloud based mapping error or an OS update could instant render thousands or millions of handsets and in turn cars with incorrect data. That could cause traffic chaos, or worse.

On the subject of traffic, with in-car nav systems increasingly fed with streaming traffic data, what happens if there's a data glitch or someone hacks the data provider for nefarious reasons? Record breaking traffic jams or, worse, pile ups could ensue. And you could achive that with a single hack, rather than having to target individual cars.

7. Say hello to your new four-wheeled overlords

This is it, the global catastrophe. The Skynet moment. Self-driving cars, you see, are on their way. They're inevitable and they're coming whether you like it or not.

Now, for the most part, self-driving cars will be a very good thing. They won't be perfect. But then they don't need to be to improve upon the horrific standards of most human drivers and in turn dramatically reduce deaths and serious injuries on our roads.

They'll also have a dramatic positive benefit on all manner of modern life. For more on that, hop on over to our feature here. But with millions of fully automated cars running around, the scope for cataclysm whether by accident or malicious intent is pretty epic.

To be fair to cars, this falls into a broader category involving robots and perhaps event artificial intelligence too. But while a murderous robo-vacuum might be little more than amusing, millions of cars hell bent on destruction is another matter altogether. Anyway, keep thinking happy thoughts and maybe it will never happen. Either that or think twice when you vote in that robotic-car referendum 15 years from now!

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