The bomb exploded as the car reached the intersection of Park Place and Forest Park Boulevard in Fort Worth, Texas. The explosion was loud enough to be heard at an elementary school a couple of blocks away, and I was one of several students who got to the scene before emergency crews had cleaned it up. From the front doors rearward the car looked nearly normal, but there was just a blackened pile of junk where the front end used to be. The driver was killed instantly.

From what I recall, later investigation of this mid-1960s incident turned up ties to organized crime, and I’m not sure but what the criminals put the bomb in the wrong car. Even the Mafia makes mistakes.

To commit that crime, someone had to make a powerful time bomb and gain physical access to the car in order to plant it. In the near future, it will be logically possible to wreck a car and kill the driver without ever laying a finger on either one. Once wireless networking and Bluetooth communications are integrated in new models of automobiles, a sufficiently dedicated hacker might be able to wrest control of the car from the driver and do anything he likes, including driving the car off a cliff or into a gravel truck.

So far as anyone knows, no one has committed a successful crime by hacking into a car’s software. On the other hand, automotive software hacking for benign purposes has been around for a decade or more. While teens of an earlier generation would get greasy in a garage staying up till midnight to hop up a ’57 Chevy for drag racing, today’s hot-rodders hack into the valve-control software and tune up the timing to suit their purposes. The keyhole for this activity is the OBD-II port—the place an auto tech plugs a computer into your car to diagnose why your check-engine light is on.

In a demonstration for the US military, cyberhackers showed how they could use the port to exert virtually total control over a current-model car, locking the brakes or even killing the engine. This kind of hacking requires extensive knowledge of the car’s software and a good deal of reverse engineering, so it is currently not cost-effective for the bad guys to do it. And with non-networked cars, it still requires physical access to the car.

But automotive-industry leaders are trying to anticipate the day when new cars are totally networked and become part of the internet, which will open them up to attacks from anywhere in the world.

According to recent press reports, automakers are organizing an automotive version of an Information Sharing Advisory Center (ISAC), similar to the ones that the banking and other information-critical industries have formed to promote the sharing of news about cyber-threats among competing firms and to develop countermeasures fast. Just as significant as their actions is the fact that they are publicizing their actions.

One could speculate that the car companies are trying to send a signal to potential automotive cyber-attackers that the industry is not sitting idly by, waiting for the first fatality before something is done to prevent such attacks. Instead, they are putting defenses in place well before any attack occurs—a sound military tactic.

There may be a lesson here about the tendency of organizations to lose effectiveness with time. Computers have been used in cars for less than a generation. But cars have had ignition keys for close to three generations. The GM ignition-switch failures, with their resulting fatalities and massive recalls, stem from the negligence of engineers who have been doing basically the same thing since the 1930s, although the details have certainly changed over the years.

But the engineers in charge of computer security have grown up in an environment where hacking and cyberattacks are an ordinary part of life, and to pretend otherwise would be a mark of incompetence. So it is no great surprise to hear that car companies are trying to get ahead of computer criminals by forming an ISAC.

Even so, you can imagine situations in which the mere threat of such an attack would be profitable for criminals. Say you’re the CEO of UPS, and one day near the peak Christmas-shipping season you get an email instructing you to deposit two million dollars in a certain Swiss bank account by a certain time. If you don’t, the sender promises to throw a digital monkey wrench into your entire fleet of trucks, all at once. The CEO would at least have to take such a threat seriously.

I feel like taking a mental bath after putting myself into the mindset of a cybercriminal that way, but unfortunately, that is what competent computer-security people have to do in order to come up with ways to thwart such attacks. The only sure defense against such blackmail is to have enough encryption and other measures in place so that no conceivable attack will stand a good chance of working. There is always a chance that some evil super-genius will figure out a way to hack the best defenses, but statistically, such people are rare and most cyber-threats involve only the average amount of cleverness.

The organizers of the first automotive ISAC are to be congratulated for their foresight in anticipating what could be a really messy and dangerous problem, and I hope that automotive cyberattacks are prevented before they can even get off the ground.

But no one knows exactly how cars will interact with the internet in the future, and depending on how the systems develop, the best efforts of the good guys may be foiled sooner or later by a bad guy. Let’s hope that day is a long way off.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...