Hacked Highways? Connected Cars Could Gridlock Entire Cities, Study Warns

ATLANTA — Cybersecurity has quickly become a priority for large corporations, businesses, and individuals alike in recent years. It seems like another major data breach is being reported every other week, and personal online accounts are often compromised by malicious actors. Now, a new study out of the Georgia Institute of Technology has found that hackers may soon be able to cause major traffic problems in the real world by hacking and stranding internet-connected cars.

The study’s authors theorize that hackers would only have to shut down a portion of cars on the road in a busy city like Manhattan during rush hour to completely shut down traffic and gridlock the city. Researchers hope that their findings will spark a more detailed analysis of automotive cybersecurity, especially moving forward as cars become more and more high tech.

“Unlike most of the data breaches we hear about, hacked cars have physical consequences,” says co-author Peter Yunker in a release.

Yunker and his team say that right now the automotive cybersecurity sector is focusing too much on hacks that target one car, and they need to consider the possibility that a higher number of cars being hacked at the same time could lead to mayhem.

“With cars, one of the worrying things is that currently there is effectively one central computing system, and a lot runs through it. You don’t necessarily have separate systems to run your car and run your satellite radio. If you can get into one, you may be able to get into the other,” explains co-author Jesse Silverberg

The research team ran simulations on Manhattan, and found they were able to bring all traffic to a complete freeze by randomly stalling 20% of the cars on the road at rush hour. Hacking just 10% of cars on the road would stop traffic enough to prevent emergency vehicles from moving around.

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“At 20 percent, the city has been broken up into small islands, where you may be able to inch around a few blocks, but no one would be able to move across town,” says graduate research assistant David Yanni.

Researchers say that Manhattan is actually a less than ideal target for car hackers, and more damage may be done with less cars in other cities.

“Manhattan has a nice grid, and that makes traffic more efficient. Looking at cities without large grids like Atlanta, Boston, or Los Angeles, and we think hackers could do worse harm because a grid makes you more robust with redundancies to get to the same places down many different routes,” Yunker explains.

Furthermore, the study’s authors say they did not account for any outside factors, such as traffic spillover from other blocked streets or public panic, when compiling their findings. With this in mind, they say that its likely that significantly less than 20% of all cars would be needed to gridlock a city and cause a panic.

The study is published in the journal Physical Review E.

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