“I could see a large amount of data. Including where the Tesla has been, where it has been charging, current location, where it usually parks, when it has been driving, travel speed, navigation requests, software update history, even weather history around the Tesla and so much more,” Colombo wrote in the post to Medium published in January that detailed his exploits.
Although the specific vulnerabilities that Colombo exploited have been patched, his hack shows a huge flaw at the core of these smart vehicles: data sharing is not a bug; it’s a feature.
The amount of data that Tesla collects and uses is only the tip of the iceberg. We have yet to see fully autonomous vehicles or the much-vaunted “smart cities,” which could see roads and traffic lights with 5G technology.
In the near future, cars will not only collect information about their driver and passengers, but also about the vehicles, pedestrians and the city around them. Some of that data will be needed to make the car work properly – to reduce crashes, better plan routes and improve the vehicles themselves.
“The United States and Europe have been asleep at the wheel,” says Tu Le, managing director of Sino Auto Insights. The US, Canada and Europe may still be the world leaders in the production of traditional vehicles, but that lead will not last long. Whether it’s cobalt mining, lithium battery innovation, 5G technology or big data analytics, Le says China is several steps ahead of its Western competitors.
“All these seemingly unrelated things come together in this smart EV,” says Le.
Of course, not all of Beijing’s success has come fairly. Chinese nationals have been accused of stealing intellectual property from American companies to fuel China’s booming industry. Le says that kind of espionage certainly helps, but it’s not the main reason for Beijing’s rapid growth in the auto sector.
China’s ability to handle eye-watering amounts of data, for example, is well documented. Beijing’s facial recognition programs rely on a ubiquitous network of surveillance cameras, its proprietary GPS system enables real-time tracking of Xinjiang’s Muslim minority, its expansive online surveillance system feeds into its dystopian social credit score. “One country is used to managing terabytes of data on a daily basis,” says Le—and, at least when it comes to the automotive industry, it’s not the United States.
And these data are not only Chinese. Massive investment from Beijing brings its “smart city” brand to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan; Venezuela; and countries across Africa. Chinese autonomous vehicle pilot projects like Pony.ai are even on the roads in California.
China has learned that diverse data, taking into account vast differences in time, people and technology, improve algorithms. If China gets better at harnessing that data, it may need less of it. Thus, even anonymous, general data transmitted from a Chinese car manufacturing fleet in North America could reveal individual patterns and habits, but also paint a complex picture of an entire neighborhood or city—whether it’s the daily routine of an urban military base or the layout of a powerful minister in the cabinet. By banning Teslas from certain areas, China already appears to be controlling the threat domestically.