Auto Software with ‘Birth Certificates’ Suggests BlackBerry QNX

Specialized in-car apps don’t have to pose a risk, BlackBerry QNX’s John Wall, tells Louis Bedigian.

App stores have been essential to the success of smartphones, providing a multitude of downloadable features that were not available right from the start. John Wall, senior vice-president and general manager of BlackBerry QNX, thinks that an in-car app store could do the same for automobiles.

Said Wall: “What we ultimately see is that the car will become abstracted to a set of software services. I call it the Android for the car. It’s not about the head unit, it’s about the engine or autonomous driving. It’s about all of it, so the entire car will be abstracted to a set of services.” Wall described a scenario in which the owner of a Porsche is going to the infamous Nordschleife of the Nürburgring race circuit in Germany and wants to download suspension, engine and transmission settings specifically for that track. He speculated that it would one day be possible to download those setting as an app.

“It’s not an app like OpenTable or Twitter for the head unit but an app for the car,” he said. “You’d be able to rent that app for the weekend and I think there will be a battle of what the ecosystem is for the car. It’s much like phones but I think the properties for a car are very different. You need safety-certified, real-time, very robust software because it’s controlling life-critical applications. I think there will be probably, over time, a consolidation of this ecosystem into maybe one or two or three ecosystems for the car. And this is going to be an abstraction of every function in the car – braking, steering, everything.”

Forget AVs – cyber-security is a risk at any level of automation

Cyber-security threats are often associated with autonomous vehicles but Wall said that cars are at risk the moment automated features are introduced. “As soon as you have automated features, that means there’s some software in the car that can control your steering, braking and acceleration. You have adaptive cruise control, it’s controlling things. You have lane departure assist or blind spot detection that can control the wheel, you’ve got an issue.”

Upgrades and replacement parts may also be problematic if they are not secure and authenticated. Wall explained: “As the car gets more automated, I don’t want somebody messing with the engine. I want the engine to know that the part that’s in there is the official part that was meant for that car and has a birth certificate authenticating that it’s the right part. I think that’s where we’re headed – parts being authenticated right from the fab. As soon as the chip is made, it’s stamped with an automaker’s certificate.”

All-in-all, Wall thinks the biggest issue is the number of individual ECUs from different Tier 1s, which come into the car without any coordination. “There’s no way to validate the messaging between one ECU and another ECU,” he added. “You have the CAN bus, which was never built with security in mind. Today the way to mitigate that is to make sure that whatever cellular or outside connection you have, to the vehicle, is very firmly walled off from the rest of the car that’s controlling the brakes and the steering. Having a very strong firewall between the safety buses and the entertainment buses is what needs to be done today.”

V2X vulnerabilities

V2X communication is thought to be an essential part of connected mobility, particularly as cars become more autonomous. This technology may come at a price, however, introducing a host of new security risks as cars attempt to communicate with each other. Said Wall: “We worry about things like doing an over the air software update. You have a V2X system in your vehicle, and the V2X system is modified in such a way that it reports false locations. Or it’s telling infrastructure I’m over there but I’m actually over here. If it’s V2V, it is definitely a concern because this other vehicle is communicating with me.”

Wall warned that if a car is five feet away but sends a signal indicating that it is 100 feet away, a self-driving vehicle might not know what to do next. “There has to be a way for authentication of these messages,” he affirmed. “I think authentication and encryption are going to be a big part of this, of being able to make sure that the messages we’re receiving are accurate. There’s no doubt about it.”

If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that automobiles are relatively safe from the threat of viruses – for now, at least. “I think today it’d be very hard to put a virus in the car simply because the systems are so diverse. They’re made by so many different people and contain many different software stacks. It would be very difficult to develop one virus that could affect all of it but, for the head unit with Android, absolutely it could happen.”

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