Although it goes without saying that more devices connect to the internet with every passing year, the nature of the latest connected devices has changed. Thanks to Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, computers and mobile devices have been joined on the internet by “always connected” appliances, industrial sensors, and even cars — the latter development a major step forward for the automotive industry.

The IoT revolution is unlocking tremendous innovation and potential for automakers, but it’s also opening car doors, hoods, and trunks to a new wave of cybersecurity threats. In the last three years, the automotive industry suffered a 225% increase in cyberattacks, including not only the data privacy breaches that have plagued every economic sector, but also troublingly successful digital car break-ins, thefts, and control system accesses. While automakers aspire to build safe cars, enhanced connectivity has increased that challenge in numerous ways. 

Even before connected vehicles made their way into the marketplace, automakers were already contending with significant regulatory compliance requirements, including state-specific standards and regulations. Now automakers must also follow international cybersecurity and software standards, notably including UNECE WP.29, ISO 24089 and ISO/SAE 21434. As 775 million connected cars are projected to be on roads by 2023, more than doubling the prior number in only five years, additional cybersecurity regulations will certainly be forthcoming.

The automotive supply chain’s complexity and fast-changing nature presents unique challenges for both automakers and suppliers, including special considerations when managing connectivity solutions such as sensors, driverless systems, in-car computers, and other electronics. Shocks to the auto industry’s microprocessor supplies forced automakers to delay car shipments, revise designs and quietly strip out capabilities based solely on chip shortages.

Cars are mobile computers now, and there’s no turning back

Over the last decade, the automotive industry has transformed itself to meet demand for electric and more digital cars, which are surpassing smartphones as the planet’s most complex “mobile devices.” Consequently, new vehicles need to be protected like the computing platforms they have become.

Without appropriate cybersecurity measures within vehicles, features ranging from simple charging ports to entire autopilot systems are vulnerable to manipulation from inside or outside the vehicle. In April 2021, Consumer Reports proved a “simple hack” — using a physical weight — could activate Tesla’s autopilot feature without a driver in the seat. Months later, Dutch investigators were able to decrypt Tesla’s driving data storage system, discovering that vehicles collect a “wealth of information” for as long as one year, including information Tesla hadn’t disclosed after government requests.

Now electric vehicle (EV) charging stations are also being targeted by cyberattacks, revealing the need for improved security in both EVs and the infrastructure that supports them. Charging station screens have been hacked to display political messages and offensive content, as well as leveraging the charger-to-EV connection to decrease EV battery capacity, disable brakes, and take control of the steering mechanism. Hackers have also found ways “to hold the vehicle, or the charging station, for ransom.” In other words, the potential for anything from mischief to loss of money or life is simply incredible.

Automakers and suppliers are ultimately responsible for improving cybersecurity

Organizations can get ahead of potential cybersecurity issues by examining their governance and vehicle development processes with an eye toward guaranteeing proper security from the moment a new vehicle is initially specified. Unfortunately, this proactive approach is too often overlooked in favor of increasing a new vehicle’s speed to market, and in some cases, reducing costs.

Car manufacturers and suppliers must make security a primary, consistent and thorough consideration throughout product development and lifecycle management processes, meeting both regulatory and industry compliance requirements. Security should be maintained until a vehicle’s end of life, or at a minimum through the manufacturer’s advance-disclosed end of cybersecurity support, whichever comes first.

This approach to reducing cybersecurity risks is known as security by design, a strategy that enhances trust for all stakeholders across the product's entire life cycle. Security by design can be implemented in several steps:

  1. Align with industry standards. As connected vehicle security standards are currently in flux — and will continue to be — automakers must confirm their product development processes are aligned with the industry’s latest standards.
  2. Meet regional, national and international regulations. Today’s vehicles are commonly global products, yet they are subject to multiple layers of regulations. Organizations must meet regional, national and international regulatory requirements.
  3. Regularly re-test and verify cybersecurity measures. Given the dynamic regulatory landscape, products and systems need to ship with adequate cybersecurity, but ongoing testing and verification will guarantee their continued security. Since many organizations are challenged to support ongoing security assurance, work with a trusted expert for assessment, testing and certification.

Making vehicles more resilient against cybersecurity threats will ultimately benefit both users and automakers, but this will require some companies to embrace internal and supply chain cultural changes. Security needs to start during the design stage, and as subsystems remain critical to vehicles, continue with trusted automotive suppliers, whose components and products must individually comply with industry cybersecurity regulations and standards.

If cybersecurity measures are thoroughly incorporated, the ongoing shift toward constantly connected cars will be a universally positive leap forward for users. Absent adequate security, threat actors will only become more dangerous, exploiting new opportunities to disrupt daily life on roads and at energy stations.