Tuesday 18th June 2019

Is Musk’s open source move the tip of the iceberg for automotive disruptors?

Published on October 3rd, 2018

Tesla has been in the headlines a lot this year and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to work out what the future holds for this pioneering car maker and its’ icon leader, says, Chris Clark, principal security engineer at Synopsys.

This year we’ve witnessed production line challenges that have slowed the delivery of Tesla Model 3 cars. We’ve also heard comments from Elon Musk suggesting his proposal to take the company private — removing it from the NASDAQ stock exchange to “gain focus.” Events such as these, paired with the pressure building from new competitors including Karma’s Rivero, Bollinger’s B1 and others, are muddying the water for Tesla.

Musk’s defense regarding comments pertaining to business practices in addition to an ongoing probe by the US Justice Department around his comments to take the company private make it clear that Tesla does indeed have the backing of its leader. But what does this mean for the overall industry?

Automotive has learned the hard way

The auto industry at large has learned through experience that designing, developing, producing and managing a single (let alone an entire) line of vehicles is a challenging process. Factors such as warranty management and recalls can place a significant strain on any organisation.

And Tesla is feeling the pressure. Just ask Greg Furstenworth, a self-proclaimed Tesla fan, who has waited months for parts and has voiced the concerns of many in the same predicament. With so many start-ups in automotive, is the lack of infrastructure and experience going to lead to more of the same?

Now consider that most new vehicles on the road today rely heavily on software technology, and have started the process of integrating systems that were traditionally outside the automotive industry’s scope. How can small start-ups deal with a rapidly changing software environment on top of ensuring the deployed software is resilient to cyber-attack?

A different kind of taking it public

Well, Elon Musk has committed to making part of Tesla’s self-driving software available to the public to help address some of these safety concerns. Is that enough or is that even the right path?

The debate between open source and closed source isn’t new. It’s rehashed in many other threads, and for that reason I will not delve into it here as it’s more useful to focus on building a complex system that brings a multi-faceted challenge. Fleet connectivity, management and autonomous driving are just a few aspects of this challenge; but before diving into these more complex topics, let’s look at common facets.

Many people never consider that when they purchase a vehicle, some the parts in their vehicle are also probably the same as those in the one next to theirs. That can apply whether the vehicle next to theirs from the same car maker or perhaps a completely different one. Now consider that some, just some, of the software may also be shared between vehicles.

Depending on how that software is used, implemented, or modified we may be able to determine one vehicle is susceptible to attack while another may not be, which is confusing, but true. The takeaway here is that every vehicle is different and as software is developed and shared from one platform or another, the interactions between each of the items in the vehicle must be considered when evaluating potential cybersecurity implications.

Will consolidation of tech save us?

Wait! What about the trend in consolidation of computing technologies in vehicles? Will this reduce the overall potential for attack? Probably not. What we will see is the reduction in the number of components that make up a vehicle and fewer sources of software, but the quality and robustness of the software is still potentially the weak point.

Key drivers for buying vehicles vary between and within each age group, but a few things remain essential: cost and value for money. New players in like Bollinger, Karma and Tesla must give customers what they want at a price they are willing to pay. And they need to address scalability, not only from a production standpoint but also from concerning software security.

Let’s see if this new breed of manufacturers is ready to keep the pedal down as they head for the security chicane.

See Synopsys for more information.

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