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Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The internet connectivity built into most new vehicles enables all sorts of conveniences — news, entertainment, weather and even over-the-air software updates from the manufacturer. The downside: Connected cars are incredibly easy to hack.

The big picture: With 16 million new cars and trucks sold every year in the U.S., these cybersecurity risks are already extensive and will only grow as the push toward autonomous vehicles continues.

Today's connected vehicles sync up with crash avoidance systems, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warnings and other networked safety components. They contain up to hundreds of processors and electronic control units (ECUs), each with its own processor. One ECU might control the braking system, another the lights, yet another tire pressure. These powerful ECUs are typically connected, sometimes wirelessly, to the car’s main computer and to each other by a data bus — sending and receiving data, files and commands.

Protecting vehicle ECUs and entertainment systems against hackers — via operating system updates, file backups, antivirus software upgrades, malicious software screening tools, and the latest web browser — takes anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes a month. Yet those brief moments per processor, across the hundreds of processors in each car, make for a formidable task.

Moreover, there are no rules dictating who is responsible for ensuring that needed updates and upgrades happen at all, let alone in a timely fashion — a regulatory gap that increases the potential openings for malicious actors. Without a commitment from the manufacturer to verify that software and firmware are functional and up to date, vehicle operators are left vulnerable. A critical safety feature could be disabled by obsolete logic — or, potentially worse, by the installation of embedded malware.

By exploiting many of the same vulnerable entry points found in smart phones and laptops, hackers can gain control of a car's microphones, lights and components over internet, bluetooth or internal wireless connections. Once in the system, they can surreptitiously listen in on conversations, intercept calls, access private data and, in certain situations, assume control of or compromise a car’s operational and safety systems. Under remote control, the distinction between changing the radio station and changing the car's speed is simply the push of a button.

Be smart: If vehicle cybersecurity does not receive serious oversight and attention now — from manufacturers, governments and drivers — it will soon become a critical impediment to safety and privacy.

Jason Levine is executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Go deeper

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Pfizer-BioNTech: Booster doses more effective at blocking Omicron

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Pfizer and BioNTech said Wednesday that two doses of their COVID-19 vaccine were significantly less effective at neutralizing the Omicron variant in early lab tests, but a three-dose regimen was more effective.

Why it matters: Omicron, which has been labeled a variant of concern by the World Health Organization after being identified by scientists in South Africa last month, has forced vaccine makers to reassess the effectiveness of their vaccines against this specific new form of coronavirus.

Mike Allen, author of AM
1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Biden unveils "Building a Better America" branding

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President Biden today launched a new website and unveiled bold new branding as part of a nationwide tour to sell the benefits of his infrastructure package.

Why it matters: The White House says passage of the new law shows the ability to "forge bipartisan consensus and prove our democracy can deliver big wins" even in these toxic times.

3 hours ago - World

Olaf Scholz sworn in as German chancellor, succeeding Merkel

Incoming German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is sworn in by Bundestag President Bärbel Bas in Berlin today. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Social Democrat Olaf Scholz was sworn in as chancellor of Germany on Wednesday, succeeding Angela Merkel after 16 years and launching a new era of German and European politics.

Why it matters: Scholz, a center-left pragmatist who served as finance minister and vice chancellor in Merkel's last government, will lead Europe's largest economy in a coalition with the environmentalist Greens and pro-business Free Democrats.