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Car Jack-Jacking: Cybersecurity Is The Next Challenge For Electric Vehicles

By 2015, $144 million will be spent annually on cybersecurity tools for electric vehicles. Hacker attacks on electric vehicles couldn't just spoof credit card numbers or power a car for free—they could also potentially take down the grid.

Electric cars can go fast, have increasingly impressive battery lives, help drivers save money, and help wean economies off of oil. But the recharging stations planned for many electric cars—and the new smart grid itself—have potentially huge security issues that will need patching in the coming years. Some companies may be dedicating research to building better batteries, but equally important is going to be building better firewalls to go with them.

A study published earlier this year by market intelligence firm Pike Research claims that a staggering $432 million will be invested in cybersecurity innovations for electric cars between 2011 and 2015. By 2015, the electric vehicle cybersecurity market will amount to $144 million annually—compared to $26 million in 2011.

Most electric car cybersecurity developments will deal with recharging issues. Gas stations and industry big names such as Better Place will have to find foolproof methods of securing the financial transactions that happen when you pay with a credit card at a charging station that isn't in your garage. Unexpected IT issues in the massive support network that enables electric cars to work (think of garages, parking lot recharging stations, cloud-based management apps) will have to be detected and secured. But most interestingly of all, the industry will have to find a method of making sure that recharging transactions are legitimate. What happens when aspiring cyberthieves try to hack into the new tech of electric car recharging stations?

According to Pike Research's Bob Lockhart, "a malicious attack on the electric vehicle cyber infrastructure could potentially result in brownouts or stranded vehicles, and any failure in smart charging systems could strike a huge blow to utilities as well as consumer confidence in the reliability and viability of electric vehicles as a preferred mode of transportation."

To prevent that, as the Pike numbers show, electric vehicle cybersecurity is becoming a growth industry. Big names such as RSA and Cisco have already jumped into the electric vehicle field with new products. In a recent white paper, Cisco's Dirk Schlesinger and Marc Girardot explain how their employer is preparing for what they euphemistically term "increased displacement of internal combustion engines by plug-in hybrid and fully electric vehicles." Put less diplomatically, Cisco expects customers to buy a ton of electric vehicles. Unlike conventional automobiles, electric vehicles tend to be closely integrated with computer networks and various cloud technologies. This is a boon for cybersecurity providers—and a possible risk to customers.

One special area of concern is the rise of vehicle-to-grid technology (V2G), an industry term for the integration of electric vehicles into conventional electric grids. By using V2G technologies, utility providers can let electricity flow from car batteries to power lines and back, creating a healthy flow of cash for utility companies and savings on home electricity bills for electric vehicle owners. However, researchers are still exploring security flaws in V2G technologies; there are fears that malevolent hackers or terrorists could inflict substantial damage in either the electrical grid or in the transportation infrastructure through use of unforeseen security holes.

[Image: Flickr user raleighwoman]

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Email Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, here or find him on Twitter and Google+.

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