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Defensive driving

Drivers don’t often think about the computer system under their car’s hood, but increasingly those computers are communicating with other systems — and therefore are vulnerable to hacks.

In 2015, for example, security researchers showed they could control a Jeep Cherokee remotely, leading Chrysler to issue a recall for 1.4 million vehicles.

C. Emre Koksal is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at The Ohio State University who researches communication and cybersecurity for automobiles. Koksal believes he has a new weapon to fight vehicular computer hacking, putting a new spin on the term “defensive driving.”

What kind of vehicle security issues does your research address?

Some of the important concerns that we are trying to address are those related to safety. Maybe there’s not much of a safety issue involved when I turn on my car remotely or turn on the heater before I get into my car, but if cars are talking with each other, there are a lot of safety issues involved.

There are these new technologies in which cars broadcast situational messages at any given point in time — like I broadcast my location, my speed, my lane and so on many times a second. Some actions are taken based on what you hear from those messages.

As an example, suppose I tell you that there’s an accident ahead and you should brake hard. Are you going to follow my suggestion or are you going to ignore it? The consequences are directly related to our safety.

What’s the motivation for hacking cars’ computer systems?

There may be many reasons, but there are a couple of catastrophic ones, including the possibility of terrorist attacks. Going back to the example I gave, suppose I steal a radio from one of the vehicles that’s certified, and I take it to the hotel next door and start broadcasting messages during peak times like: “There’s an accident, slow down” or “brake hard.” That would propagate to the entire highway.

I can cause chaos in the highway network around the city and cause maybe hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, if not fatal consequences.

Suppose autonomous driving is widespread. If I find a way to hack autonomous vehicles, if I can control a bunch of vehicles — I don’t want to think what I can do with that.

How does your research into multiple-input, multiple-output antenna technology address these security issues?

We are combining the existing cybersecurity paradigm with what is called the physical layer security paradigm. In the physical layer security, you process the signals you receive and deduce something about the content of the message from the signals themselves.

If somebody tells me he’s in location X but the physical signal that I receive suggests it’s coming from Y, then there’s something wrong with that.

The physical nature of the signal is much more difficult to hack. I can change the content of the message and hack the message itself, but I cannot make the signal look like it’s coming from another location. Multiple antennas tie the receipt signal with a direction, so it differs at each direction, which means I can now estimate the direction that the signal’s arriving in.

Do you foresee the antennas being on every highway at some point?

I do. In the near future, though, I don’t think they will be in every vehicle. Typically, auto companies try to cut costs as much as possible, but there’s no reason we shouldn’t put them in roadside units.

This would be a big investment from both car companies and governments, correct?

It should be a combined effort from auto companies, and they should be publicly funded as well. This is along the same lines as having roadside lighting, I think. Who should fund that? If we care about safety as a society, we should chip in to it. But there are ways to make a profit out of it if you’re an auto company.