In 2020, a researcher at a Belgian university demonstrated how easy it was for him to hack a Tesla Model X. Using just $300 worth of hardware, Lennert Wouters exploited a combination of seemingly unconnected security flaws to remotely access the keyless entry system on a nearby Tesla Model X. He obviously didn’t steal it. He did highlight how quick and painless it was for him to access the car.
Electric cars, especially those with sophisticated biometric security technology, are certainly harder to steal. But they are still vulnerable, and in ways that might surprise you. You couldn’t pop the lock and hotwire a Tesla - you’d do well to pull it off on any modern car - but owners of newer, premium vehicles are still at risk.
What are the security risks of electric cars?
Tesla, for example, makes a big noise about its ‘over the air’ software updates. These updates enable Tesla owners to benefit from ongoing improvements to security, performance and even entertainment. Tesla regularly adds new games and entertainment options to the delight of their customers via these updates.
But that means every Tesla can be connected to potentially exploitable networks, including 4G, 5G, Bluetooth and WiFi.
Personal security and electric cars
The other thing to keep in mind when thinking about car security is yourself. If a thief really wants your vehicle, they’ll do their best to find a way, especially at the luxury end of the market.
In fact, one of the ironic downsides of improved vehicle security is that it potentially puts owners at higher risk than their car, especially compared to a scenario where their car had been more easily stealable using old-fashioned methods. Nowadays, instead of breaking into a car via the window and hot wiring it or finding a way to steal the keys from the owner’s home or place of work, criminals are significantly more prepared to simply target the owner, often treating them as a “key”.
In 2015, a Tesla was stolen at gunpoint in Barstow, California, while the owner was charging it up. The thief demanded the owner get out of the car and leave his key and phone in the car, both of which were enough to enable the thief to assume total control over the car. Unsurprisingly, the Tesla owner complied, and his car was taken.
There’s another pretty obvious human-level security flaw when you consider electric cars; charging stations. If we accept that thieves will target owners to gain access to their cars, then it naturally follows that charging stations would be the best place to steal the vehicle.
Why? For a start, it’s significantly more likely that the owner will be present at a charging station than if a car was targeted at the home address. Secondly, charging stations tend to be unmanned. Car thefts from petrol stations aren’t unheard of, but the natural deterrent of other customers, staff and proximity to relatively busy roads would certainly make it an unwise choice compared to targeting the car elsewhere.
Charging stations are located in a variety of places, from motorway services to hotels, to remote laybys. And when you consider that Tesla superchargers only currently work for Tesla, a would-be Tesla thief has very little thinking to access a number of cars to their liking.
What can motorists do to improve electric car security?
Electric cars are, by definition, relatively modern. So they come equipped with a good supply of in-built security features. But this can create a false sense of security among owners. A smart move would be to buy a GPS car tracker as a backup. Tesla owners can track their car using the app on their smartphone, but a thief is most likely to use the phone to gain access to the car, or they’ll remotely hack the vehicle and disconnect the owner’s phone. Either way, Tesla’s app tracking feature becomes useless. A GPS tracking device attached to a discreet location allows the owner to locate the car quickly.
Another step towards enhancing the security of an electric car is to take a few simple personal security steps, bearing in mind many would-be thieves would target the owner to get access to the car.
A good start would be avoiding unnecessary risks in the following ways.
Consider where you park. Avoid remote areas and badly lit spots.
Avoid attracting the attention of would-be thieves. Yes, your eclectic car is cool, and the dash display is very impressive. But the second you post that on social media, you’ve potentially told any would-be thieves that you have what they want.
Have a backup security system you can rely on if your car is hacked or stolen by force.