Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

High-tech cars of the future may be subject to attacks, viruses, and even minor programming bugs — which is why they need to be able to fix themselves.

Why it matters: We're not driving cars anymore — we're driving computers.

  • When a software glitch occurs on our smartphone or laptop, it's an annoyance.
  • But when there's a programming defect in an autonomous vehicle, it could have dire consequences. This, in turn, could set back the entire industry plus undermine the chance to build public trust in self-driving cars.

Driving the news: Some Tesla owners last week reported in an online forum that they could no longer access the car's Autopilot system and related assisted-driving features, with some speculating it was tied to a recent firmware update.

The big picture: Cars are complicated, with 100 or more computer-controlled subsystems that are needed for functions like steering, braking, and adjusting the seats. And all that hardware is embedded with massive amounts of software.

  • By 2020, 98% of new cars will be connected to the internet, making it easier to add new features or capabilities via over-the-air software updates.
  • Samsung's Harman subsidiary handles OTA updates for 24 automakers, but most carmakers still require customers to make a trip to the dealership for driving updates.
  • Tesla is the exception. The company says it has pushed out hundreds of OTA updates to its vehicles since 2012.

Yes, but: Being connected to the internet can make vehicles vulnerable and software updates can sometimes introduce new problems.

The risks will only grow in the push toward automation, so having a software safety net will be important, tech analysts say.

  • "It’s going to be a necessity — especially when you're downloading safety critical systems — that you don’t break the car," says Michael Ramsey, mobility analyst at Gartner.

What to watch: New self-healing software from Israeli startup Aurora Labs — now undergoing tests by a half-dozen automakers — monitors a car's systems to help ensure that doesn't happen.

  • It uses artificial intelligence to self-diagnose coding problems and fix errors on-the-go.
  • The technology sifts line-by-line through the estimated 100 million lines of code in today's cars to detect faults and predict problems before they occur.
  • If it finds a glitch, the software seamlessly rolls back to an earlier, safer version so related functions aren't disabled while the problem is addressed. (Harman says it, too, has rollback capability.)
  • Self-healing software could be a viable way to protect against both malicious and accidental corruption of vehicle software, Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid says.
  • Yes, but: The approach requires additional onboard storage to preserve all of the previous changes, which could bog down performance. New electronic systems that automakers have in the works should address that, Abuelsamid notes.

The bottom line: If machines are going to replace human drivers, they will need to be resilient like humans.

Editor's note: This piece was corrected to show Tesla has been doing OTA updates since 2012 (not 2016) and to clarify the circumstances that Harman and automakers handle OTA updates.

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