Auto ISAC: Creating A Car Smarter Than You

By Rob Enderle July 19, 2016

There is a pretty good chance that your existing car uses QNX, which is Blackberry’s operating system.  Interestingly, the most common places you’ll find it is in nuclear power plants, automobiles, hospitals (medical equipment), defense, utilities, and, of course, Blackberry phones.  This is why I found myself in a connected car session at the Blackberry Security Summit in New York listening to what is going on with Auto ISAC— the organization driving the standards which will define the next generation car. This car is expected to drive better than people do.  It is interesting to note that Tesla, one of the most advanced car makers in the world, and one that just lost a driver due to Autopilot shortcomings, isn’t a member.  That seems a tad unwise because, even if you don’t use the standards, the lessons on how to secure the technology and ensure drivers and passengers remain safe should be a high priority right now.  

Currently, this organization is tracking 14 tools whose sole purpose is to hack cars. This suggests that we are going to have some very painful experiences in the future and that Tesla in particular, since they don’t belong, will likely have some other painful events.    

Let’s cover some of my takeaways.

Everything You Do Will Be Monitored and Shared

One of the things that appears to be clear is that not only will near term new cars be connected, they’ll report virtually everything you do in them.  Now the good news about this is that you’ll get far better warnings about traffic, weather (particularly ice patches and flooding), and, if the car has a problem, the dealer and manufacturer will likely know before you do and have a fix planned.

The bad news is that all of this data will be available to law enforcement, which means that if you like to drive unsafely you may not need to get caught beacuse the car will likely report you and, at the very least, your insurance will go up.  

Auto ISAC

This group generally coordinates best practices for creating connected cars and actively looks for and reports threats.  This means that cars will get far more secure and reliable much faster because the firms are using this organization to share how they are doing this with each other.   This isn’t just the manufacturers, but the suppliers as well.  Now sharing isn’t required, it is voluntary, which means that some critical things may not make it across, particularly if there is a huge screw up that the firm doesn’t want to go public.  Still, having these firms cooperate in critical issues goes a long way towards ensuring that as our cars get smarter they don’t also become homicidal.  

Interesting side note, the current safety standard if the system controlling the car fails is all stop.  This could be a tad problematic on a freeway or if similar systems find their way onto flying cars.  

Blackberry and Car OS Battles

It is clear that cars are quickly becoming, some could compellingly argue they already are, rolling personal computers.  Blackberry is clearly jumping out in front of this race with their QNX platform. Could you imagine picking your car based on the operating system it has? That could be our future.  The good news, at least with regard to security, is that QNX is security first and is currently in some of the most secure areas in the world. It’s already in cars and leads in market share for car entertainment, telematics, gauge clusters and car operations.  So they are a good chunk of the way there.  Their biggest competitor is Linux, which generally doesn’t have the same level of protections, but more people know how to program for it.  So if your future car runs QNX you likely won’t get a lot of cool 3rd party apps, but the car is less likely to kill you; if you end up with Linux the opposite will likely be true.   It’ll be interesting to see how we make that choice if and when we actually get it. 

Wrapping Up: 

We are rapidly moving to a time when cars are going to become smarter than we are.  The speaker at the Blackberry Summit indicated that this future is around 15 years out from now. Given how fast Tesla is moving, I’m thinking this will likely be closer to five. The industry is moving reasonably aggressively to get ahead of this but, historically, regulation has been more effective at focusing the industry on safety first and regulation is running relatively slowly at the moment. Thank heavens Blackberry is dominant and their QNX platform is designed to be secure, otherwise a lot more of us likely will end up in someone else’s trunk.  I’ll bet that, up to now, the idea of a car that was smarter than you was attractive, a car that is both smarter and homicidal not so much.  Fortunately, folks like Blackberry are focused on making sure the latter doesn’t happen.  Let’s hope the OEMs listen. 




Edited by Alicia Young

President and Principal Analyst, Enderle Group

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