The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

Can a Virus Hitch a Ride in Your Car?

March 15, 2005

NEW YORK — A virus can wreak havoc on computer files, hard drives and networks, but, according to an article in the New York Times on March 6, what if viruses, worms or other forms of malware penetrated the computers that control ever more crucial functions in the car? Could you find yourself at the wheel of two tons of rolling steel that has malevolent code coursing through its electronic veins? That frightening prospect has had Internet message boards buzzing this year, amid rumors that a virus had infected Lexus cars and SUVs. The virus supposedly entered the cars over the Bluetooth wireless link that lets drivers use their cell phones to carry on hands-free conversations through the cars' microphones and speakers. The prospect is not so implausible. A handful of real if fairly benign cell phone viruses have already been observed, in antivirus industry parlance, "in the wild." Still, a virus in a cell phone might muck up an address book or, at worst, quietly dial Vanuatu during peak hours. But malicious code in cars, which rely on computers for functions as benign as seat adjustment and as crucial as antiskid systems that seize control of the brakes and throttle to prevent a crash, could do far more harm. The Lexus tale, based on murky reporting and a speculative statement by Kaspersky Labs, a Moscow antivirus company, seems to have been unfounded. "Lexus and its parent companies, Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. and Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan, have investigated this rumor," the carmaker said in a statement last month, "and have determined it to be without foundation." But the question lingers: Could a car be infected by a virus passed along from, say, your cell phone or hand-held computer? Or worse, by a hacker with a Bluetooth device within range of the car's antennas? The short answer is, not yet. "Right now this is a lot of hype rather than reality, the idea that cars could be turning against us," said Thilo Koslowski, a vice president and lead analyst for auto-based information and communication technologies at Gartner G2, a technology research firm. "We won't see John Carpenter's 'Christine' becoming a reality anytime soon." But Koslowski and others are quick to point out that the elements for mischief are slowly falling into place: First, vehicles are increasingly controlled by electronics -- to the point that even the simple mechanical link between the gas pedal and engine throttle is giving way to "drive by wire" systems. Second, more data is being exchanged with outside sources, including cell phones and real-time traffic reports. Finally, the interlinking of car electronics opens up the possibility that automotive worms could burrow into a memory storage area in ways that engineers never imagined.
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