Connected vehicles could be hacked into gridlock

by Hal Mattern

Autonomous vehicles and other Internet-connected cars could be the next victims of cyber hackers, possibly resulting in paralyzed traffic in major American cities.

Physicists at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Multiscale Systems, Inc., have applied physics in a new study to simulate what it would take for future hackers to wreak widespread havoc by randomly stranding self-driving cars. The researchers want to expand the current discussion on automotive cybersecurity, which mainly focuses on hacks that could crash one car or run over one pedestrian, to include potential mass mayhem.

They warn that even with increasingly tighter cyber defenses, the amount of data breached has soared in recent years. And, they say, objects becoming hackable can convert the rising cyber threat into a potential physical menace.

“Unlike most of the data breaches we hear about, hacked cars have physical consequences,” said Peter Yunker, who co-led the study and is an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Physics.

It may not be that hard for hackers to commandeer parts of the “Internet of things,” including cars, said Jesse Silverberg of Multiscale Systems, who co-led the study with Yunker.

“With cars, one of the worrying things is that currently there is effectively one central computing system, and a lot runs through it,” Silverberg said. “You don’t necessarily have separate systems to run your car and run your satellite radio. If you can get into one, you may be able to get into the other.”

In simulations of the hacking of self-driving vehicles, the researchers froze traffic in Manhattan nearly solid. But they said stalling even a small percentage of cars could cause significant disruption.

“Randomly stalling 20 percent of cars during rush hour would mean total traffic freeze,” said David Yanni, a graduate research assistant in Junker’s lab. “At 20 percent, the city has been broken up into small islands, where you may be able to inch around a few blocks, but no one would be able to move across town.”

Not all cars on the road would have to be connected, just enough for hackers to stall a percentage of all cars on the road. For example, if 40 percent of all cars on the road were connected, hacking half would suffice.

Hacking 10 percent of all cars at rush hour would debilitate traffic enough to prevent emergency vehicles from cutting through traffic that is inching along citywide. The same thing would happen with a 20 percent hack during intermediate daytime traffic.

Yunker said traffic jams could be even worse in other cities.

“Manhattan has a nice grid, and that makes traffic more efficient,” he said. “Looking at cities without large grids like Atlanta, Boston or Los Angeles, we think hackers could do worse harm because a grid makes you more robust with redundancies to get to the same places down many different routes.”

The researchers left out factors that would likely worsen hacking damage, thus a real-world hack may require stalling even fewer cars to shut down Manhattan.

“I want to emphasize that we only considered static situations – if roads are blocked or not blocked,” Yunker said. “In many cases, blocked roads spill over traffic into other roads, which we also did not include. If we were to factor in these other things, the number of cars you’d have to stall would likely drop down significantly.”

Share this post