How automakers can integrate security into connected car design

Alexander Meisel

Automotive Cybersecurity Engineer

12 min read

Long gone are the days where we’d be impressed by new cars with electric window functionalities, relieving us of the effort it took to wind them up and down manually. These kinds of amenities now come as a given, and new cars are more than just vehicles with some fancy gizmos. They are connected devices and part of a modern, digital ecosystem.

Connected cars are made up of multiple digital components, including software, hardware, WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity, mobile apps, and the cloud. While all of these components improve driving experience beyond what we would have thought possible 20 years ago, they are also all susceptible to hacking.

Creating cars that can easily connect with each other and the cloud significantly raises the possibility of automotive hacking. This not only puts consumers’ private data and the cars themselves at risk, but it also jeopardizes drivers’ safety. Yet while the industry speeds ahead in creating new technological features, carmakers are largely failing to catch up when it comes to cybersecurity

Innovative developments in connected car systems need to be accompanied by the right level of cybersecurity, which can be integrated into the car’s design from the drawing board. Building advanced car security into design in this way does not come easily, but those that prioritize it will reap the rewards in the long term. Let’s take a look at how automakers can successfully create secure connected cars, right from the design stage.

Car cybersecurity means bringing in software engineers

By 2020, Gartner predicts that there will be a quarter-billion connected vehicles on the road. There’s no doubt that connected car security needs to be taken seriously in order to protect data, prevent theft, and keep drivers safe.

However, there are some obstacles between where we are now and widespread, functionally advanced car security. The fact that cars are made from various components from OEMs and third-party operatives all around the world means there are no current standards on how to integrate modern security into car design. Many of these companies don’t accept the responsibility to address cyber threats that could potentially occur further down the supply chain.

This feeds into the lack of a monoculture and pervasive secrecy that have long been standard in the auto industry. With no existing components on which to build a secure product, each company is trying to “reinvent the wheel” by creating cybersecurity solutions on their own. Once a standard has been formed and used globally (e.g. the key-in-lock mechanism), what now feel like homegrown, error-prone solutions will be much more reliable. Yet innovation and progress in this area is arguably being held back by a lack of collaboration.

None of this is helped by the fact that the auto industry has been traditionally populated by engineers, and not software developers. This transition to focusing on software and cybersecurity takes time and cultural change, but car companies can’t afford to wait: Forescout estimates that "software in modern cars exceeds 100 million lines of code" - 15 times greater than in avionics software.

Building secure connected cars, from the drawing board

Design principles apply to almost all products in every industry, including automakers. By using design principles, automakers mitigate future threats and build security into the car’s systems right from the outset. This means giving priority to security at each design stage and involving all individuals responsible for designing the final product.

For example, the principle of “separation of duties” means including more than one person in completing a critical task, where possible. This helps to prevent fraud and errors, while offering a more objective judgement. Another important security design principle is “defense in depth.” This principle stipulates that more security controls which mitigate various risks should be used, even where one security control alone might be sufficient.

Using the principle of “fail safe” is integral to making sure systems are backed up in the event of failure, which essentially means never allowing the security of the system and its data to be at risk. The “open design” principle is crucial to make sure a security solution is as solid as possible: Open design means publishing a security design so it can be scrutinized and evaluated by the wider community in hopes of catching and correcting any weaknesses.

These are just a few of the design principles that can play an important role in building advanced car security, with others including the principles of least privilege, complete mediation, least common mechanism, psychological acceptability, weakest link, and leveraging existing components.

Automakers should consider seeking external insights to help them along on this journey. Receiving valuable feedback and having an objective eye on your security design is possible by partnering with experts that can offer this kind of consultation. Working with a partner with expertise on design phase and proof of concept implementation can help automakers not only streamline their design process, but also fundamentally enhance the design with the help of experts in the design field.

However, much of this progress in connected car security would be truly propelled if OEMs and automakers adopted a more collaborative approach in sharing successful security designs. While we are a long way from seeing collaboration in such a competitive industry, there are some signs that it might be on the horizon. For example, the Autosar Adaptive Platform offers OEMs methodological support to implement security by design. The project is a work in progress and is yet to be adopted by many OEMs, but it represents a step in the right direction by sharing knowledge to fuel progress.

Innovative design and security can go hand in hand

While the auto industry may not be where it needs to in terms of progress, we can see impressive examples of automakers using innovative technology to heighten connected car security. For example, biometric technologies are being leveraged at  Porsche, which is working with computing developer FogHorn to develop a multi-factor authentication system using facial recognition and edge analytics. The prototype uses infrared-powered face detection to verify that the person entering the car is its owner, without having to send the data to a central location, and also includes a mechanism which turns the owner’s smartphone into the key.

Tesla is also exemplifying successful car security through design. All of the software used to run the cars, which includes everything from windshield wipers to the infotainment system, can be updated remotely. This helps Tesla protect its cars from potential hacks, with the company even employing ethical hackers to find holes in its security systems so it can patch up vulnerabilities and install the necessary updates.

Achieving complete connected car security might seem like a challenge for today’s automakers, but it is reachable if carmakers incorporate it into their car design from day one. By using design principles, collaborating where possible, and even partnering with a third-party expert to help them along their security design journey, automakers can make sure they’re not only protecting connected cars from hackers, but also keeping consumers safe on the roads.

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