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The Hitchhiker's Guide to Hacking Connected Cars: 5G Rising

"The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology, but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human." -John Naisbitt


It was December 7, 2015 when a 911 operator received reports of multiple car crashes in West Palm Beach, Florida sending multiple people to the hospital while the driver quickly left each scene of the accident.

"What was different about this 911 call was that it wasn't a human asking for help on the other end of the 911 operator, it was a car."

The car, driven by 57-year-old Cathy Bernstein, was a Ford smart car, powered by Ford's SYNC 911-assist technology which after detecting the collisions through either the deployment of the airbag or disconnection of the fuel pump, attempted to first use the driver's phone which was paired with the car to place the 911 call automatically. When the 911 operator did not receive anything from that call, the car further assisted by sending the GPS coordinates and make and model of the car automatically to 911.

This feature was integrated into cars to help first responders quickly rescue victims who have lost consciousness in automobile accidents. In this case, Bernstein told the skeptical 911 operator that she hadn't been in a hit and run accident at all, but through the help of this Ford 911 Assist feature, to make the arrest, authorities didn't require a truthful confession from Bernstein to press the charges.

Known for leading the world in consumer privacy law protections with its recent GDPR law that went into affect on May 25, 2018, the European Union countries have made eCall, much to the dismay of European consumers of potential privacy violations, a compulsory feature of every car in 2015 despite outcries of concerns over privacy.

There is widespread misconception that someone doesn't have a "connected car" unless they are driving around in a $70,000 Tesla. However, that is not the case at all. As a matter of fact, most US car makers now integrate telematics (the ability to have the car communicate over cellular base stations), including Ford's MyFord Touch and Sync3, Fiat-Chrysler's Uconnect, Mazda Connect, GM OnStar, BMW Assist, Hyundai Bluelink, Kia UVO, Lexus Safety Connect, Mercedes-Benz's Me Connect, and Toyota Safety Connect. What may seem duplicitous to some, is that you may not even have known you were buying a telematics system when you purchased your car as its built into the price of most vehicles. Paradoxically, many "dumb cars" now contain many smart car/cyber-physical vehicle (CPV) features without the driver even knowing.

Connected Cars and 5G

The fact of the matter is, more and more cars on the road are communicating over cellular technology, as a matter of fact, many automakers today send updates to their fleet over cellular airwaves referred to as OTA, or over-the-air updates. SMS text messages are also used by automakers for sending/receiving data from their telematics control units (TCUs) installed in their fleet.

So what's the connection between connected cars and 5G? Everything. Connected cars are equipped as discussed in previous articles in this series on V2X networks and ECUs with both WiFi and cellular interfaces, making cars nothing more than networks on wheels. They contain both in-vehicle networks and the capability to communicate externally with other cars and roadside units (RSUs) also referred to as ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems). While in-vehicle networking relies on both wired and wireless communication between ECUs as well as externally (V2X), the OEM requires connectivity to the fleet remotely from much greater distance than what WiFi can provide. This is where cellular technology, currently 4G/LTE and soon, 5G makes its debut to the cast of characters in the Internet of Cars.

Surprisingly, while 5G isn't going to be a present-day reality for another two years or so, semiconductor companies like Qualcomm are already bringing to market 5G-capable, Snapdragon-based communication systems and infotainment platforms that offer streaming video and other higher-bandwidth required entertainment, which will require the bandwidth offered by 5G data speeds. Samsung, who recently acquired Harman, is also leading the market in tomorrow's 5G devices for the Internet of Cars economy with its new Telematics Control Unit, which supports 5G as a necessary cog in its "Samsung Intelligent Digital Cockpit" combining advanced audio with new networking technologies. However, with the faster bandwidth from the outside-in to the vehicle, faster bandwidth for in-vehicle networking must keep up lest it become the bottleneck. Both Cisco and Hyundai announced a partnership that will bring high-speed networking technology to some Hyundai vehicle lines as soon as next year built on SDN (software defined networking) that will sport 1 Gbps speeds.

However, while 5G may seem like a distant future, many 5G trials have already begun with connected cars. As recently as November 2017, Intel, Ericsson, Toyota, Denso, and NTT DoCoMo have announced their ability to attain speeds of 1Gbps down and 600 Mbps up while streaming 4K video from a CPV across a 5G trial at Tokyo's Odaiba waterfront in Japan.

While 5G's public availability is at least two years out, we're rapidly moving in that direction with the international standards organization 3GPP recently defining the "Release 15" 5G standard, meaning, all of the manufacturers now have a shared goal for which technology to implement. In January of this year, the UK completed its 5G spectrum auction. The move towards 5G is happening quickly, not just in the United States, but with our friends across the pond in the UK and EU writ large.

4G/LTE Versus 5G

Let's quickly decompose 4G and 5G so you better understand the idiosyncratic differences between the two technologies. 4G and 5G are of course both mobile wireless access technologies, offering Ethernet speeds on mobile devices, such as mobile phones and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies, such as connected cars.

"The simplest way I can put this is that 5G will theoretically boast speeds of roughly 10 Gbps and reduced network latency from 45ms under current 4G technology to 1ms. Exact speeds will of course vary across the different technology manufacturers and platforms, but Samsung for instance, says its managed to achieve 7.5 Gbps with Nokia claiming a more impressive 10 Gbps."

These speeds of course relegate only to download speeds, however, upload speeds will quite possibly reach 10Gbps. Trials in the United States have resulted in Verizon boasting download speeds of 30-50 times faster than 4G, enabling consumers to download an entire movie in just around 15 seconds. The 5G Innovation Centre has achieved even higher speeds in test environments of around 1 Tbps, roughly 65,000 times faster than typical 4G speeds. Latency time is just as important, with the previously mentioned 1ms delay on 5G, 3G with roughly a 120ms delay, and 4G 45ms.


In conclusion, 5G will boast speeds that we won't even be getting via DSL or cable to our own homes. Imagine for a moment a reality where we'll get speeds up to 10 times faster than what we get at home with our home internet connection. People will quickly be opting to start up their mobile hotspot in lieu of using their DSL connection because of the differences in speed. Now apply these speeds to a connected car. 10 Gbps and 1ms latency creates a limitless number of potential in-vehicle technologies for infotainment system manufacturers that companies like Harman/Samsung are already making announcements of; boasting 5G capable head units that begs to ask the real question of, "what implications on cybersecurity does all this new technology create as it relates to the safety of human life within these connected cars."

Something we'll continue to discuss throughout the Hitchhiker's Guide to Hacking Connected Cars series every week.

Meet Alissa Knight

Alissa Knight is the Group CEO of Brier & Thorn and heads its Connected Car Division where she and her team perform penetration testing and risk assessments of cyber-physical vehicles from OEMs in the United States, Europe, and Asia. As a recognized thought leader in the new Internet of Everything economy, Alissa can be found speaking at security conferences in North America and EMEA, vlogging, blogging, and writing contributed articles on the idiosyncratic cybersecurity issues in IoT that matter most. Learn more about Alissa at her homepage at, LinkedIn, or follow her on Twitter @alissaknight.

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