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Cars are becoming rolling computer networks — and that's dangerous

Miles Willis/Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency has ordered the repair of nearly 500,000 Audi and Volkswagen vehicles based on allegations that their onboard computers were programmed to operate differently during emissions tests than they do the rest of the time. The scheme allegedly allowed Volkswagen's cars to effectively cheat on the emissions tests, and to emit more pollutants than the law allows the rest of the time.

The problem afflicts Volkswagen and Audi vehicles from model years 2009 to 2015, meaning that it took the EPA six years to discover it. The story is a reminder of a huge change that's happening across the car industry. Cars are becoming increasingly computerized. And the government agencies that regulate cars — from the EPA to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — are going to have to beef up their technical skills in order to regulate them effectively.

Back in July, we learned that it's possible for a hacker sitting hundreds of miles away to hack into certain Jeep vehicles, gain control of their internal networks, and then tamper with their transmission, brakes, and other safety-critical features.

Meanwhile, car companies are working on increasingly sophisticated — and increasingly computerized — semi-autonomous driving systems that allow cars to automatically do things like park, follow a car in front of them, stay in their lane, and brake in the case of impending crashes.

Testing software isn't like testing ordinary mechanical systems. The failure modes of mechanical systems are relatively simple and predictable, so you can just run them through a bunch of different controlled scenarios and see how they hold up. But there's an infinite number of ways software can behave, and an infinite number of potential security vulnerabilities.

When it comes to software reliability and security, the auto industry is roughly where the PC industry was in the 1990s — before wave after wave of malware forced companies to take the issue more seriously. Software engineers have developed sophisticated testing techniques to make sure software is secure and reliable — but those techniques are not widely used in the auto industry. As our cars become increasingly computerized, government agencies are going to have to hire a lot more computer scientists and software engineers to help them bring car testing techniques into the 21st Century.

Correction: The Obama administration has ordered Volkswagen to fix the problem, but has not ordered a formal recall as this article originally stated.