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Hackers expose weaknesses in cars’ computer systems

The hackers showed that they could slam on the brakes at freeway speeds, jerk the steering wheel, or shut down the engine, all from their laptop computers.

Steven Senne /AP file

The hackers showed that they could slam on the brakes at freeway speeds, jerk the steering wheel, or shut down the engine, all from their laptop computers.

DETROIT — As cars become more like PCs on wheels, what’s to stop a hacker from taking over yours?

In recent demonstrations, hackers have shown they can slam a car’s brakes at freeway speeds, jerk the steering wheel, and even shut down the engine — all from their laptop computers.

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The hackers are publicizing their work to reveal vulnerabilities present in a growing number of car computers. All cars and trucks contain anywhere from 20 to 70 computers. They control everything from the brakes to acceleration to the windows, and are connected to an internal network. A few hackers have recently managed to find their way into these intricate networks.

In one case, a pair of hackers manipulated two cars by plugging a laptop into a port beneath the dashboard where mechanics connect their computers to search for problems. Scarier yet, another group took control of a car’s computers through cellular telephone and Bluetooth connections, the compact disc player, and even the tire pressure monitoring system.

The ‘‘hackers’’ involved were well-intentioned computer security experts, and it took both groups months to break into the computers. And there have been no real-world cases of a hacker remotely taking over a car. But experts say high-tech hijackings will get easier as automakers give them full Internet access and add computer-controlled safety devices that take over driving duties, such as braking or steering, in emergencies. Another possibility: A tech-savvy thief could unlock the doors and drive off with your vehicle.

‘‘The more technology they add to the vehicle, the more opportunities there are for that to be abused for nefarious purposes,’’ says Rich Mogull, CEO of Phoenix-based Securosis, a security research firm. ‘‘Anything with a computer chip in it is vulnerable, history keeps showing us.’’

In the last 25 years, automakers have gradually computerized functions such as steering, braking, accelerating, and shifting. Electronic gas pedal position sensors, for instance, are more reliable than the old throttle cables. Electronic parts also reduce weight and help cars use less gasoline.

The networks of little computers inside today’s cars are fertile ground for hackers.

Charlie Miller, a St. Louis-based security engineer for Twitter, and fellow hacker Chris Valasek, director of intelligence at a Pittsburgh computer security consulting firm, maneuvered their way into the computer systems of a 2010 Toyota Prius and 2010 Ford Escape through a port used by mechanics.

‘‘We could control steering, braking, acceleration to a certain extent, seat belts, lights, horn, speedometer, gas gauge,’’ said Valasek. The two used a federal grant to expose the vulnerability of car computers. Even with their expertise, it took them nine months to get in.

Valasek and Miller released a report, including instructions on how to break into the cars’ networks, at a hacker convention in August. They said they did so to draw attention to the problems and get automakers to fix them. The pair say automakers haven’t added security to the ports.

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