You’ve probably never heard of John Hetrick. But you should have. It’s possible he’s saved more lives in the history of the world than anyone else.
Thanks to Hetrick, we all drive around in our cars safer than ever before.
In the spring of 1952, Hetrick was out driving in his car with his wife and his seven year old daughter.
‘In the spring of ’52, my wife, my seven-year-old daughter, Joan, and I were out for a Sunday drive in our 1948 Chrysler Windsor. About three miles outside Newport we were watching for deer bounding across the road.
‘Suddenly, there was a large rock in our path, just past the crest of a hill. I remember hitting the brakes and veering the car to the right. We went into the ditch but avoided hitting both a tree and a wooden fence. In that respect we were very lucky.
‘As I applied the brakes, both my wife and I threw our hands up to keep our daughter from hitting the dashboard. There was soft mud in the ditch, so the car wasn’t damaged, and no one was hurt.
‘During the ride home I couldn’t stop thinking about the accident. I asked myself, ‘Why couldn’t some object come out to stop you from striking the inside of the car?’ As soon as I got home that night I sat down at the kitchen table and drew some sketches. Each evening for the following two weeks, I’d add or subtract something from the sketches.’
This was the very beginning of the airbag.
Another safety device in cars is the seatbelt. The history of the seatbelt goes back as far as the 19th century. However it wasn’t until 1958 when SAAB made seatbelts standard in all their cars.
What you also may not realise is in 1970, Victoria put in place the first law in the world making seatbelts compulsory for front seat passengers and drivers.
Of course now seatbelts are standard in every new car in the world.
The seatbelt and the airbag are two of the most important inventions in car safety ever. If you were to go and buy a new car, they’re two things you would expect as standard.
Imagine going into a dealer and finding out the car you were looking at didn’t have airbags or seatbelts. You’d walk away.
Safety devices and safety ratings are one of the key selling points for any new car. But the cars of the future will have another safety feature as important as both the airbag and the seatbelt.
In fact, when you go looking for a new car, the first thing you look for could be this crucial bit of technology.
The problem is modern cars these days often have several computers. There are computers to manage the entertainment system. Computers to manage the engine and powertrain. Computers to manage the computers. And as we all know computers can be vulnerable to attack.
I used to have a Volkswagen Golf. Not long after I first bought it, I had to take it into Volkswagen as they’d issued a recall. It wasn’t something overly dangerous; it was simply a problem with the Engine Control Unit.
When I looked at the job sheet after I picked it up all they did was download new ECU software. That’s it. Just downloaded some software, car fixed.
Some guy just plugged in a computer, and about 10 minutes later, job done. This ensured the car was drivable. Since then cars have become more complex, and now many connect online and even connect to the cloud.
For example, Tesla’s Model S received updates and software patches on the fly. Tesla can actually send updates to the car remotely.
And as cars become more like mobile entertainment systems and mobile offices, we’re inevitably going to run into a big problem. Hackers and online criminals will look at ways to digitally break into our cars.
This is a problem that is only going to get worse. The fix to this problem is to make cars not just safe from a physical point of view but to also make them hack-proof.
The cars of tomorrow will need to be as safe as our computers. They will need threat prevention and anti-virus protection. When you walk into that show room you will still ask, what’s its safety rating? Your next question should be, what’s its cyber rating?
Chris Valasek is director of vehicle security research with ioActive, and Charlie Miller is a security engineer with Twitter. Together they studied 20 different cars to give them a cyber rating. Their aim was to see which cars were easy to hack and which ones were hard to hack.
The 2014 Jeep Cherokee was the easiest car to hack of the 20 they looked at. It was just in front of the 2015 Cadillac Escalade. The hardest car to hack of the research pool was the 2006 Ford Fusion.
This could be the biggest market opportunity in cyber security
One of the problems that both Valasek and Miller identify is that, ‘Each manufacturer designs their fleets differently; therefore, ‘analysis of remote threats must avoid generalities.’ That means every different carmaker will need to be looked at differently.
That actually presents a massive opportunity for forward thinking cyber security companies. Because what it really means is there’s going to be a lot of work in cyber security for cars.
Cyber security in general is a massive multi-billion dollar industry. The business of keeping corporations and individuals safe online grows every year. Now there’s the car industry to add to the mix.
Some companies, such as NCC Group [LSE:NCC], have already developed tools and techniques to assess car security. They can go to a carmaker and hack their cars to see if they’re secure or not. The technical term for it is penetration testing.
Right now there are a lot of cyber security companies. Giants of cyber security, Symantec and Trend Micro, are two that come to mind. But not many are getting involved in car cyber security yet. There’s no doubt it’s going to be a profitable area for the right company, but it’ll be the smaller, relative unknowns like NCC that might stand to really capture this great market opportunity.
So remember, next time you’re in the market for a car, don’t just think physical safety. Ask how ‘hackable’ the car is. The dealer might look at you funny, and if they do…look elsewhere. If you want to keep your family safe in the car, then you want to make sure you’re travelling in the most hack-proof car you can.
Editor, Tech Insider
Ed note: The above article originally appeared in Tech Insider.