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Imagine for a moment you’re cruising down the I-495 beltway at 65 miles per hour, listening to your favorite Spotify playlist, and suddenly, your brakes fail right at the moment traffic slows to a halt. Through no fault of your own, you slam into the car in front of you, and that car into the one in front of it, and that car into the one in front of it.

What on earth just happened?

Well, maybe you’ve fallen behind on routine maintenance.

Or maybe your car was hacked.

Once upon a time, cars were rolling balls of metal and machine. Today, your car is a rolling ball of metal and machine, and computers. The average new car is equipped with a number of processors and wireless systems that allow it to do things like provide directions to the hot new restaurant in Falls Church, and stream music from your smartphone via Bluetooth, and when working properly: to make sure you don’t rear-end the car in front of you.

What can someone do if they hack into a car?

A determined hacker could access your car’s processors and wireless systems remotely, with the intent to manipulate a vehicle’s braking system, control the windshield wipers, honk the horn, or worse: Anyone with the power to hack into a vehicle’s computer would be able to determine where it has traveled, and where it is currently located.

Can my car be hacked?

Hypothetically, yes. Any computer connected to the outside world can be hacked, but to date, there have been no reported instances of hackers taking control of cars. (Except, of course, for the researchers working diligently to protect your future vehicles from cyber attack.)

Should I be scared?

No. Hacking a vehicle isn’t exactly the same as infecting a desktop computer, or a laptop with a virus; it’s extremely complicated, and requires more than a little technical know-how, and even more time. Your run-of-the-mill basement hacker isn’t exactly going to jump from trolling Internet forums to taking remote control of vehicles any time soon.

Are automakers doing anything to protect future cars?

Yes. The only reason we know about the risks hackers pose to the cars on the road is because automakers have invested time and research dollars into protecting their fleets.

What can I do?

Just keep driving. Stream your music. Navigate your way to your destination. While it’s important to be aware that your car could be hacked at some point in the future, it’s just as important to know that the chances of this happening are far less than those of having your house broken into.

In the market for a new [used] car?

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