Awkward: Cadillac launches vehicle-to-vehicle tech as Wikileaks shares docs on CIA car snooping

March 10, 2017

Vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems are a Very Big Deal that few people are talking about. This week, Cadillac tried to change that by announcing the roll-out of V2V technology on new models. Unfortunately, the timing of Cadillac's news was a little awkward.

A recap

When we think of major changes on the horizon for the auto industry, we tend to think of self-driving cars, electric vehicles, and mobility services (e.g. ride-sharing and car-sharing companies like Uber and Maven). V2V tech sometimes gets lumped into discussions of autonomous cars, but in fact, it's in a category all its own.

If you're unfamiliar with the term, V2V is essentially a system that allows cars to "talk" to one another. It can keep vehicles informed about the speed of nearby cars, alert them to potential hazards, update traffic info, and so on.

As you can imagine, that kind of technology could save drivers a lot of headaches. Most importantly, it's liable to reduce the number of roadway accidents by at least 50 percent--and perhaps as much as 80 percent. In so far as it prevents traffic jams and keeps freeways flowing, V2V is also projected to reduce the world's fuel consumption. 

In some ways, V2V is the flip side of autonomous tech. Whereas self-driving software employs cameras, radar, and other sensors to help cars maneuver along roadways, V2V does the same thing by talking to other vehicles. Think of it like this: autonomous tech lets cars operate inside their own individual bubbles; V2V, on the other hand, is most effective when it's linked to a vast network of vehicles. When paired, the two technologies offer huge benefits to drivers and pedestrians alike.

Cadillac jumps ahead

Back in December, the U.S. Department of Transportation said that it was ready to move forward with proposals to make V2V standard on new cars. Since then, little has been heard about the DOT's plans, but Cadillac isn't waiting around.

Yesterday, General Motors' luxury brand announced that it's launching its own V2V tech right now. The software will come standard on all 2017 CTS models currently in production.

According to Cadillac's Richard Brekus, the technology provides many exciting advances: "V2V essentially enables the car to sense around corners. Connecting vehicles through V2V holds tremendous potential, as this technology enables the car to acquire and analyze information outside the bounds of the driver’s field of vision. As an early mover, we look forward to seeing its benefit multiply as more V2V-equipped vehicles hit the road."

Because V2V is so new, there's been plenty of debate about how to design the technology so that there's consistency from one car to the next. Some automakers like BMW and Mercedes-Benz have grounded their V2V systems in cellular networks for transmitting data and alerts.

Cadillac, however, has gone a different route. It's placed its bet on dedicated short-range communications (DSRC) technology, paired with GPS. DSRC doesn't cover the range that cellular networks do, but what it lacks in size it makes up for with speed. Cadillac says that its system can communicate with vehicles up to 1,000 feet away, sending and receiving up to 1,000 messages every second.

Which is great, but essentially it means that, going forward, Cadillacs will only be able to communicate with other Cadillacs. And so, Cadillac vehicles won't be able to share important information with other nearby cars, nor can they gather data from those vehicles--at least not in the way that the system is currently designed. That's a major shortcoming. (For more on the issue, check out this nifty article.)

And there's another problem....

All in the timing

As we mentioned above, V2V technology creates a network of cars, all in communication with one another. And as we probably all know by now, networks make hacking possible. 

V2V adds cars to the ever-growing Internet of Things--the same Internet of Things that was targeted by a massive distributed denial of service attack last October. Due to the nature of cars and the concerns that many consumers and government agencies have about vehicles being hacked, Cadillac has likely created an abundance of firewalls to keep out the baddies.

But what about ne'er-do-wells that are already inside? What if the calls are coming from inside the house? That's what some people were led to wonder given the timing of Cadillac's announcement, which came one day after Wikileaks published a trove of 8,761 classified documents that had been leaked from the CIA.

It will take many more days--if not weeks or months--for journalists and others to sift through those docs. However, Wikileaks highlighted one in particular that ought to be alarming for car owners: minutes from a top-secret meeting that took place in October 2014 and discussed, among other things, the CIA's efforts to embed surveillance devices in our vehicles. 

To be fair to Cadillac, the notes from that meeting aren't full transcripts and only hint at what attendees discussed. On the automotive front, however, they did talk about vehicle systems like Blackberry's QNX, which underpins Ford's new SYNC 3 telematics system.

While there are certainly differences between telematics and V2V tech, both rely on networks to do their work. If the CIA found a way to embed surveillance technology in a telematics system like QNX, they could almost certainly find a way to do the same for V2V.

To be clear, we're not trying to cast doubt on the safety of Cadillac's V2V system. We're just saying that, given all the scrutiny around hacking these days--and this viral video that shows Amazon's Alexa shutting down when asked whether it's connected to the CIA--the timing of Cadillac's news is a little unfortunate.

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