Self-driving cars—the next terrorism threat?

Reports over the weekend that Tesla could be the latest carmaker to add autonomous features to its products is being greeted with excitement, but experts are concerned that the new industry technology could be susceptible to sinister cybercriminal activity.

Egil Juliussen, director of research for infotainment and advanced driver assistance systems at research group IHS Automotive, told CNBC via email that electronics systems in cars currently have no or very limited security measures.

"The economic opportunities are very different for car systems than PCs, tablets and smartphones. There is very little information in the car that can be easily turned into revenue for the average hacker," he said.

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"Instead the reason for hacking and controlling cars are more sinister, such as creating traffic chaos, murder-for-hire, cyber warfare and related terrorist acts."

Juliussen deals out the worst-case scenario but believes that intellectual property theft may be the most common hacking reason in the future, or denting an auto manufacturer's reputation and liability issues. The FBI also remains concerned. An unclassified report obtained by the U.K. newspaper The Guardian in July said that the agency was predicting that autonomous cars may be used as "lethal weapons."

The Nissan Autonomous Drive Leaf electric vehicle, left, is test driven during the Nissan Motor Co. 360 event in Irvine, California.
Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The Nissan Autonomous Drive Leaf electric vehicle, left, is test driven during the Nissan Motor Co. 360 event in Irvine, California.

An $87B opportunity

Self-driving cars are considered the next big revolution in the industry, with even technology companies like Google hoping to take a slice of future revenues. Research and advisory firm Lux Research predicts automakers and technology developers can look forward to a market worth $87 billion by 2030, while IHS Automotive estimates that by 2035 self-driving cars will account for half of the vehicles sold in North America and sales worldwide reaching about 11.8 million units.

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Analysts are skeptical as to whether the car of the future will be totally autonomous, saying the best features we can look forward to are simple driver-assists like adaptive cruise control. Nonetheless, they believe cybersecurity remains a crucial aspect of any future product.

Rainer Mehl, head of manufacturing consulting at data firm NTT Data, said auto companies are "extremely worried."

"They haven't answered the (cybersecurity) question yet," he told CNBC in an interview, explaining that any outcome would obviously be far worse than if someone gained access to a kitchen utility like a refrigerator. "Cybersecurity is key," he said.

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'Incremental' improvements

Analysts point to a 2011 academic paper, when researchers from the University of Washington and the University of California-San Diego were able to wirelessly hack into cars. This led to the auto industry "waking up" to the security threat, according to Juliussen, who adds that auto manufacturers and their suppliers are now doing research and acquiring expertise.

"It will take several years until the results show up in the cars," he said.

"The regulators, NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) in the U.S., and similar organizations in Europe are also paying attention, doing their research and will eventually release recommendations and/or legislation to add security to all auto electronics systems," he added.

Expect to see "incremental" security improvements in the next five years as auto manufacturers beef up their protection in the telematics and other connected car systems, according to Juliussen.

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The response to CNBC from carmakers could also underline the longevity of any new developments on the issue. At the recent Paris Motor Show, carmakers Daimler and Nissan Europe said they weren't showcasing any autonomous vehicles.

AT&T has shown an interest in the space, releasing new information about a "connected car" program last week, but details, especially about its security systems, remain scarce. The telecom firm said it expects to serve 10 million connected cars by 2017, although there's no confirmation as to whether these products will include autonomous features.