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Tesla’s Cat in the Bag

Tesla’s Cat in the Bag
by Roger C. Lanctot on 03-18-2017 at 8:00 pm

Some day soon, maybe this year or next, Tesla Motors is going to let the cat out of the bag that its cars are not only connected but are also subject to remote control. Remote control isn’t the sort of feature that consumers look for in their personal transportation, so it isn’t likely to be something Tesla is going to bring up. It also has a range of security, privacy and liability implications that make it a sticky topic to discuss.

Ethical and not-so-ethical hackers have already demonstrated unauthorized remote control of cars including Tesla’s, FCA’s Jeep Cherokees and OnStar-equipped vehicles from General Motors (on “60 Minutes”). In fact, OnStar offers “remote vehicle slowdown” as an anti-theft feature as part of OnStar which works through a cooperation with law enforcement agencies.

The topic of remote control is increasingly arising in connected car and automated driving conversations as companies, such as Local Motors, introduce driverless shuttle systems in Berlin and elsewhere, which come with remote monitoring. In fact, consumers are increasingly being offered smartphone applications that enable the equivalent of short-range vehicle remote control for parking cars in tight spots. Tesla already offers this. BYD in China has been showing off remote control of a car via smartwatch for several years.

At Mobile World Congress 2017 in Barcelona Ericsson demonstrated the use of 5G network technology for remote control of a car driving on a distant racetrack. The car was not moving quickly, but the low latency communication enabled by 5G connectivity was used to demonstrate remote control as a feature.

Operators of fleets of driverless vehicles realized early on that these vehicle fleets would require remote control. The integration of cameras on cars has enabled all-around-view technology combined with high speed LTE wireless networks further assisting the development of remote control as an application.

The concept came up during a panel discussion at CityCarSummit in Berlin yesterday, with an executive from Local Motors, which has become a fleet management company managing its Olli driverless shuttles, questioning whether car companies are capable of managing fleets. A Daimler executive sharing the stage at the time smiled wryly at the comment behind the back of the Local Motors exec. (Daimler manages both its Car2Go car sharing fleet and operates Fleetboard for commercial trucks. Daimler is also in the business of making and operating buses.)

Car companies have long known that if their cars were connected the car companies will some day bear the liability and obligation to take control of one of those cars remotely, if they could, should that vehicle become involved in criminal or life-threatening activity. Let’s call it a moral obligation, because it’s never happened.

Law enforcement officials already take advantage of embedded connections to track vehicles, as occurred in the case of the Boston Marathon bombers who stole a telematics-equipped Mercedes. But remotely stopping a connected car in the midst of committing a terrorist act, for example, is a circumstance that has yet to arise.

Tesla is courting car insurers that are increasingly inclined to offer discounts to reward Tesla owners for driving their vehicles in autopilot mode – a behavior which Tesla CEO Elon Musk has claimed results in fewer crashes and insurance claims based on vehicle data collected by the company. But the prospect of remote control introduces an entirely different connected car value proposition for insurers.

Car makers building in vehicle connections are currently wrestling with cyber-security issues meaning they are simultaneously introducing an attack surface while trying to prevent attacks. But preventing intrusions and enabling remote control are not mutually exclusive.

Once a car maker is connected to its cars it has become a fleet operator and thereby bears some responsibility for the knowledge of how its vehicles are being operated. It is the automated driving proposition that introduces the need for more active remote monitoring and control.

The legal issues can be sticky and vary from country to country. You can get a flavor of the debate from this report regarding OnStar:


No car maker has gratuitously taken control of its cars remotely. OnStar’s remote slowdown feature is already considered to be fairly mundane – even though it is the only such offering on the market in the world. Though mundane for OnStar today, remote control is controversial as a concept.

If hackers can take remote control of a car, then car makers will be expected to have the same capability – particularly in the case of self-driving cars. In fact, car makers currently deploying intrusion detection software such as Harman’s Towersec, Argus Cyber Security, NNG’s Arilou or even QNX’s Certicom will need to develop the means for remotely restoring control and responding to those intrusions. The automotive industry has yet to sort these issues out. As of today, if a car maker detects a cyber attack on a vehicle, the customer may not even be notified.

It is clear that car companies installing connections know more and more about how their vehicles are being operated and how they can be compromised. What is missing are the procedures and protocols for responding to the information that is being gleaned regarding driving behavior, vehicle performance and intrusion detection.

The fleets of driverless vehicles envisioned by “futurists” and debated at events such as CityCarSummit are proliferating – which means that remote control of vehicles is about to become a growth industry. In essence, every car maker – whether that auto maker likes it or not – is in the process of becoming a fleet operator with remote control over both driven and driverless vehicles.

Sooner or later Tesla will find a way to convey this “news” to its owners as an attractive new feature rather than a creepy technology over-reach. My favorite application will be the insurance company notification of an impending hailstorm which will send owners racing to remotely pilot their cars to covered parking.

Law enforcement certainly welcomes the prospect of remote control as a crime fighting tool – along with the potential to subpoena access to microphones built into cars for hands-free phone systems to listen in on suspects’ conversations. The only question that remains is whether consumers will regard remote control as a benign enhancement or as an invasion of the vehicle snatchers. Make no mistake, remote control is coming to a connected car in your driveway or garage sometime soon. In fact, it’s probably already there. It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your car is?

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