Mayhem ... Cars and trucks pile up on Interstate 10 in south-east Texas.
Washington: Rising cyber security risks to drivers as their cars become increasingly powered by and connected to computers have prompted the US auto-safety regulator to start a new office focusing on the threat.
"These interconnected electronics systems are creating opportunities to improve vehicle safety and reliability, but are also creating new and different safety and cyber security risks," David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), said in testimony prepared for a US Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday.
A new office within the agency to research vehicle-electronics safety will look at risks to the systems within cars and those that communicate with other vehicles. NHTSA is conducting a pilot project in Ann Arbor, Michigan, of so-called talking-car technology intended to prevent crashes.
Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said while he's excited about safety improvements through technology, he's concerned about new risks including cyber security.
"As our cars become more connected – to the internet, to wireless networks, with each other, and with our infrastructure – are they at risk of catastrophic cyber attacks?" Senator Rockefeller asked in his opening statement prepared for the hearing.
NHTSA, part of the US Transportation Department, was criticised by Congress and safety advocates in 2010 for lacking expertise in automotive electronics during hearings about Toyota's unintended-acceleration recalls.
No electronic cause was found for the incidents after the agency asked NASA and the National Academy of Sciences for help with the probe.
Cars are increasingly controlled electronically rather than mechanically, from acceleration and starting to rolling down the windows. Infotainment systems connect drivers to satellite and wireless networks.
Today's typical luxury car has more than 100 million lines of computer code, while software and electronics account for 40 per cent of the car's cost and half of warranty claims, said John D. Lee, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's industrial and systems engineering department.
Mr Lee is also scheduled to testify at today's hearing in Washington.