Friday, February 28, 2014

Innovation: Hacking cars

Image courtesy of Forbes.com
Innovation is a funny thing. Often times, it has a lot of great potential to do amazing things and drive progress, but there can be unintended side effects. With cars, as computers have become increasingly integrated into ever increasingly more aspects of the average car's functions, it was only a matter of time before someone discovered that you can tap into the car's computers and start to take over some of the functions. Much of this had been restricted in the past because there was no easy way to connect to a car driving along the road, but as manufacturers have started to add wireless and cellular connections to their vehicles to take advantage of the wealth of information on the Internet, they have also inadvertently exposed those cars to hacking from the outside.

But hacking, as a term, gets a bad reputation. Sure initially hackers were considered evil, building malicious code to gain access to protected resources or breaking through barriers to gain access to private data, but in recent years, hacking has also come to signify taking a very stock item and finding a unique way to use it or to personalize it to your own needs. With cars, we have been hacking ECUs for decades now. Many aftermarket companies have developed ways to hack the programming on the ECU of a fuel injected car to adjust everything from the fuel map to ignition timing to variable valve timing transition point and using all of those things to compensate for modifications that have been applied to the car to optimize the performance. This kind of hacking has been a boon to performance cars and has allowed the addition of massive power to virtually any car through the application of forced induction.

Going forward, the possibilities have become even greater. With the advent of traction and vehicle stability control systems that are integrated into the car's primary systems, it has become possible to access the drive-by-wire throttle to control throttle inputs as well as the ABS controls to individually brake each wheel. Infiniti's Q50 (which we tested in 2013) is the first production car to introduce steer-by-wire technology utilizes a position sensor to translate steering inputs into turning at the front wheels. This means that on that car, it is possible to not only control the throttle, brakes, and transmission through the computer, but the steering as well. On such a digitally controlled car, it would be possible to control the entire driving experience using a computer and thus, hacking into computer opens the door to all kinds of possibilities.

To go even further, take a car like the Tesla Model S, which has not just its various driving functions integrated into the computer, but the entire car's infotainment system. With the right kind of skills and enough time, it would be possible to hack the Model S and tweak it to suit an individual's needs, adjusting everything from the steering effort to the throttle response to the layout of the seat heater controls on the screen. That instrument cluster in front of the driver is nothing more than a fully digital display and could be redesigned to show all manners of information. The possibilities become endless and there are chances for a whole new kind of hacker to make a big splash in the automotive world.

Of course, not all hacking will be done for good, as demonstrated by the video from Forbes magazine writer Andy Greenberg, but the plethora of possibilities makes the idea incredibly appealing. Imagine being able to buy a car that not only meets you personal style needs, but to be able to tailor it to your personal driving style with just a few key strokes at a computer. Or how about being able to customize the instrument panel and center console of your new car to hide features and functions that you never use and make the ones that you do more prominent. Sure there is some trepidation at the possible wrong-doing that could happen, but auto makers will learn to increase their security measure over time to reduce this, and the endless wonder that could ensue might just be worth the added risk. After all, personalization is the ultimate in luxury these days.

Tags: automotive, hacking, innovation, luxury, personalization, technology