Intel Corp has tasked a group of top hackers at a West Coast garage to look for electronic bugs that could make automobiles vulnerable to lethal computer viruses.
With its McAfee unit, better known for software that fights PC viruses, Intel counts among a small number of firms finding ways of securing dozens of tiny computers and electronic communications systems that are being increasingly integrated into cars.
According to security experts, automakers had done little to protect these systems, leaving them vulnerable to attacks by hackers and others looking to steal cars, eavesdrop on conversations or harm passengers by making vehicles crash.
According to John Bumgarner, chief technology officer of the US Cyber Consequences Unit, a non-profit organisation that helps companies analyse the potential for targeted computer attacks on their networks, products attacks could definitely be launched to kill people.
No reports of violent attacks have yet been had been received says SAE International, an association of over 128,000 technical professionals working in the aerospace and the auto industries.
Ford spokesman Alan Hall, however said his company had tasked its security engineers with making its in-vehicle communications and entertainment system, Sync, as secure as possible.
Hall said Ford was taking the threat very seriously and investing in security solutions that were built into the product from the outset.
In a landmark study in 2010 a group of US computer scientists stunned the industry when they showed viruses could damage cars while they were moving at high speeds. The tests were conducted at a decommissioned airport.
In a second report, the group of US computer scientists from California and Washington state said they had identified ways in which computer worms and Trojans could be delivered to automobiles -- thorough onboard diagnostics systems, wireless connections and even tainted CDs played on radio systems.
With cars filled with dozens of tiny computers known as electronic control units or ECUs, security experts already look at cars as "computers on wheels." These units make use of tens of millions of lines of computer code to manage interconnected systems including engines, brakes and navigation as well as lighting, ventilation and entertainment.
The same wireless technologies that power mobile phones and Bluetooth headsets, are also being used in cars which adds to the vulnerability of systems on cars.
Car makers are rushing to make it easy to plug portable computers and phones to vehicles and connect them to the internet, but in many cases they are also exposing critical systems that run their vehicles to potential attackers because those networks are all linked within the car.
Security experts say car manufacturers were rushing to integrate more technologies without fully understanding that they were increasing the vulnerability of their vehicles. According to Joe Grand, an electrical engineer and independent hardware security expert, the manufacturers, like those of any other hardware products, were implementing features and technology without understanding the potential risks of doing so.
According to Grand, the average auto maker was about 20 years behind software companies in understanding how to prevent cyber attacks.
The team of experts that conducted the 2010 study also came up with a combination attack dubbed "Self Destruct". The attack started with a 60-second timer popping up on a car's digital dashboard and counting down. On reaching zero the virus could simultaneously shut off the car's lights, lock its doors, kill the engine and release or slam on the brakes.