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High-tech cars -- and equally high-tech security issues

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Remember "Christine," the malevolent Plymouth Fury of book (Stephen King) and movie fame?

Guess what:  Her high-tech sister may be back, sort of.

Or maybe it's more "Car 54, Where Are You?" except this time your car can tell you where it is, and a whole lot more.

Steve Johnson of the San Jose Mercury News reported on recent studies by university researchers and security companies concerning the possibility of cyber attacks on today's brainy cars and trucks:

One found that a car's computer controls could be remotely accessed through their Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or OnStar connections, potentially enabling terrorists to simultaneously disable the brakes of numerous cars, corporate spies to eavesdrop on a motoring executive's phone calls or thieves to electronically locate, break into and start cars they've targeted to steal. Another study showed how a car's tire-pressure warning system could be wirelessly tricked into sending false alerts to drivers, which could prompt them to stop and fall prey to robbers following them.

And you thought the big high-tech motoring problem was teenagers who text.

OK, I know, it's not as if the cars can go nuts on their own. They'll have to have help -- I guess from the folks George W. Bush so memorably called "evil-doers."

But think about it. Once, you could perform many car repairs yourself. Today, you're lucky if you can find the dipstick. I mean, I was in the showroom of an exotic-car dealer a few years ago.  A mechanic was inside the car. He was tuning it. Using an Apple laptop plugged into an access port.  

So what are you going to do when your nav system says, "Sorry, Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that," after you've asked for directions to the nearest Dunkin' Donuts?

Will there be Jiffy De-Bugger places that'll de-virus your car in 30 minutes or less?  Instead of grease monkeys, will there be silicon snakes? Will used-car ads tout a vehicle as "low-mileage, one owner, no computer viruses"?

Thankfully, our government has our backs. As The Times story says:

"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is aware of the potential for 'hackers' and is working with automakers to better understand what steps can and are being taken to address the problem," the agency said in a statement, adding that it has asked the National Academy of Sciences to look into the matter.

Whew.  Maybe they'll turn it over the TSA, and we can all have our cars patted down.

In the meantime, though, here are some practical steps I suggest you take:

  1. Buy an old VW Beetle. It may catch fire, but it certainly won't be vulnerable to cyber attacks.

  2. Don't give your car a pet name.  That way, when it goes crazy and you have to shoot it, you won't feel like the kid in "Old Yeller."

  3. Encourage your kids' computer use. Junior can then grow up to be either an Internet entrepreneur or an auto mechanic. Either way, he can earn a living and not have to mooch off of you or move back home.

  4. Last but not least, buy American.  For who knows what evil lurks in the minds of foreign cars' computers?

ALSO:

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-- Paul Whitefield

Photo: Today's cars feature sophisticated computer systems that control many functions. Credit: Wieck

 

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The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.



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