WASHINGTON — Technology that connects cars to the Internet has the potential to prevent crashes and save thousands of lives, but it also could allow hackers to grab control of vehicles and use them as weapons, experts told a House panel Wednesday.

“We’re entering a new, exciting era, but we want to be ready for it,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Transportation at a hearing on the “Internet of Cars.”

The full oversight committee is trying to determine what, if any, federal legislation should be passed to regulate cybersecurity and privacy in Internet-connected cars.

The biggest development to come in the near future  — vehicle-to-vehicle communication — has the potential to help prevent up to 80% of crashes involving two or more cars, said Nathaniel Beuse, associate administrator for vehicle safety research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is developing safety rules for the new technology.

The technology would allow cars to communicate with one another, sharing their GPS positions, speeds and direction. The vehicles would warn drivers that their cars are about to collide. If a driver does not respond quickly, the technology would take over to apply a car’s brakes or change steering.

“New technologies such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications and automated vehicle technologies have the potential to dramatically change the safety picture in the United States by helping drivers avoid crashes in the first place,” Beuse testified.

In 2013, there were over 5.7 million motor vehicle crashes in the United States, and 32,719 people died in vehicle-related crashes, Beuse said.

But connected cars also could make drivers vulnerable to hackers, warned Khaliah Barnes, associate director and administrative law counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“Cars can be remotely hacked and controlled from anywhere in the world via the Internet,” she said. “Wireless hacking can also give hackers access to the car’s physical location using built-in GPS navigation systems, which would facilitate crimes such as harassment, stalking, and car theft.”

Identity thieves also could hack their way through the computer systems of a connected-car to steal drivers’ credit card numbers, home addresses, and other personal information, Barnes said.

“Every day without car privacy and safety protections places countless drivers at risk of having their personal information — or worse, their physical safety — compromised,” she said.

Car makers said they are working with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to develop strong cybersecurity practices and urged lawmakers not to develop inflexible regulations that may stifle innovation.

“If we have the freedom to innovate…the promise of the future cannot be imagined today,” said Harry Lightsey, executive director of global connected customer experience for General Motors.

Barnes urged committee members to pass legislation that would safeguard drivers’ privacy rights, establish civil fines for the malicious hacking of vehicles, and grant rule-making authority to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to establish safeguards for connected vehicles.

“Congress must act swiftly to combat the current and future privacy threats posed by the Internet of Cars,” she said.

Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., introduced the Spy Car Study Act this month that would regulate automotive software safety, cybersecurity and privacy. The bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., would require the National Highway Safety Transportation Commission to conduct a one-year study to recommend a framework for regulating automotive software safety, cybersecurity and privacy.

“Americans have a right to drive cars that are safe and protected from hackers,” Lieu said. “Frankly, without adequate protections, a hacker could turn a car into a weapon.”


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