Drivers can talk with each other via Bluetooth phone connections, ask their cars for directions and dial up satellite radio. The same cars use electronic components to signal the gas pedal to accelerate and control stability.
What increasingly worries scientists is that entertainment computers could be manipulated to tell the safety computers what to do.
"There clearly is a vulnerability," said Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, based in Arlington, Va. "All these electronics we're bringing into cars seem to exacerbate that."
A National Academy of Sciences panel, including Lund, elevated the concerns in a report Jan. 18 reviewing U.S. regulators' work in finding the cause of unintended acceleration in Toyotas. While safety and entertainment systems are intended to be separate, "it is not evident that this separation has been adequately designed for cybersecurity concerns," the academy wrote. It agreed with U.S. regulators who said they found no evidence the Toyota incidents were caused by faulty electronics.
Car thieves could exploit security weaknesses to remotely open and start a car, or a spy could listen to conversations inside a car, Stefan Savage, a University of California-San Diego computer science professor, said in a telephone interview. He co-authored a paper last year after discovering ways to hack into cars.
Any electronic system in a car from brakes to radios is a target for hackers, said Andre Weimerskirch of Escrypt, a security company in Ann Arbor, Mich., with automotive clients. While the risk is hypothetical, automakers and regulators need to address it now, he said. "Once you have access through the infotainment system, the question is could a hacker get access to the safety-critical components," he said.