Any mechanic who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s will tell you that cars today are unlike anything they learned to work on, so chock full of computers that they seem more the realm of an IT geek than a grease monkey. And it certainly is true that modern vehicles have plenty of computers, although by and large they're not exactly like PCs. "Cars have much simpler processors than a home computer and are designed to do simple, dedicated tasks," says Cameron Camp, a researcher at ESET, a technology security company.
Indeed, most cars today have numerous so-called "embedded systems," which are small computers controlling very specific aspects of the car's functioning, such as air bag deployment, cruise control, anti-lock braking systems and power seating. While these embedded systems share the same architecture as a PC -- they utilize hardware, software, memory and a processor -- they are more akin to a smartphone in sophistication than a laptop. Automotive computers have been more or less immune to hackers and viruses because, unlike PCs, there have been few ways for outside computers or people to connect with vehicle computers.
In general, introducing a virus required physical control of the car. "In the past this would have been difficult as the only way to access a car's computer was through the use of a manufacturer's diagnostic or reprogramming equipment," says Robert Hills, senior education program manager at the Universal Technical Institute, which specializes in technical education and training for the automotive industry. In other words, it would require a mechanic introducing a virus through the computer or software used to diagnose a problem with the car.
According to Aryeh Goretsky, another researcher at ESET, it's also expensive to develop viruses for many cars because there's a lack of hardware, software and protocol standardization. "That would make it difficult for an attacker to target more than a few makes and models of an automobile at a time," he says.
But vulnerability to hacking and viruses grows as car computers become more connected to the outside world. "As more and more cars are getting interfaces with Internet sites such as Pandora and even Facebook, cars get two-way communication and are therefore by definition more vulnerable," says Cas Mollien, an information and communication technology strategist with Bazic Blue. With more entertainment and communication devices -- including MP3 and iPod adapters and USB ports -- come more channels for viruses to potentially enter a car.
Click ahead to discover why more and more benefits from automotive computers mean even more danger.