What do Clocks, Cars, and Warships have in Common?

A few months ago we had Daylight Savings Time. My parents were delighted to discover that “the clock” in their car automatically adjusted itself, as did their computer. But now they had to change the two clocks in their bedroom, the two clocks in the kitchen, and several others around the house. How did the clock in the car do that automatically?

Well, it’s far more than just a clock. That’s just one of many functions on a combined navigation and entertainment system which connects to the world over a mobile phone network.


Oh, so there’s a computer in the car?

There are many.

Last week I started telling you about how modern vehicles contain dozens of networked computers, and how Chrysler and Tesla have recently had very different experiences fixing security problems. Let’s look at the number of networked computers in modern vehicles.

Computers in Cars

This started with electronic control units in the 1970s. One or two processors controlled ignition timing and transmission shifting to meet tighter fuel economy and emission regulations.

The 1980s brought anti-lock brakes, traction control, and active suspension, all controlled by more processors.

This year’s typical car contains at least 25 to 50 processors. Braking, throttle control, and even steering are now computer-controlled drive-by-wire systems on most current models. A higher-end luxury model has more processors to support the larger number of features, and so does a more technically advanced vehicle like a Tesla model. Higher-end vehicles have closer to 100 processors.

All Nodes Matter

Some data nodes are not processors but are still part of the car’s network and a potential attack point.

Direct tire pressure monitoring systems use a small sensor on the wheel, inside the tire, with a battery that lasts about 10 years. It communicates over a UHF wireless link, typically 315 MHz in most of the world and 434 MHz in Europe. A dashboard display warns you if a tire is losing pressure, and indicates which one it is. All light vehicles manufactured in the U.S. since 2008 must have this type of system.

Low tire pressure is a safety risk, and it worsens fuel mileage and emissions. So these simple sensors are nothing but good, right?

Even these have cyber security risks! See this paper: “Security and Privacy Vulnerabilities of In-Car Wireless Networks: A Tire Pressure Monitoring System Case Study

So as that student explained: The power window controller is a dedicated Linux computer running on a single-board computer the size of a Raspberry Pi or smaller. Your side mirrors, there’s another. Windshield wipers that automatically start when needed, and can be manually set to varying speed or intervals, there’s another. Your seat adjustments that magically remember each driver’s preferences, there’s another. His company builds many of those components.

Dozens of computers provide many opportunities for problems. But it could be far more complex.

At Least It’s Not a Warship

The USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000), commissioned in October 2016, uses the Total Ship Computing Environment Infrastructure. The hardware includes Electronic Modular Enclosures, effectively 16 self-contained data centers each 35 by 8 by 12 feet. They are shielded from shock, vibration, and electromagnetic leakage in and out, and house more than 235 equipment racks.

The Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer DDG 1000 is floated out of dry dock at the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works shipyard. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics/Released)
BATH, Maine (Oct. 28, 2013) The Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer DDG 1000 is floated out of dry dock at the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works shipyard. The ship, the first of three Zumwalt-class destroyers, will provide independent forward presence and deterrence, support special operations forces and operate as part of joint and combined expeditionary forces. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics/Released)

These modular data centers contain 16 fairly conventional IBM blade servers plus a very large number of GE Fanuc Embedded Systems’ PPC7A and PPC7D single-board computers running LynuxWorks’ LynxOS real-time operating system. That provides a trusted hypervisor environment on which virtualized Linux systems run everything in the ship. The whole system contains over 6 million lines of code.

The ship’s four Rolls-Royce gas turbine engines drive electrical generators producing 78 MW of power. Some of that is used for ship propulsion but a large fraction is used for electronics including radar, radios, and all those computers.

What about repairs, patches, and updates?

The modular data centers on Zumwalt-class ships make replacement easier. It’s a highly technical ship with a critical mission, and the U.S. Navy will certainly be very careful to maintain the software ends of things.

Personal vehicles, however, are a very different matter! The vast majority of car and light truck owners are not computer professionals. There are no requirements to patch vehicle software, and there would be no way to enforce those requirements anyway as cars change hands multiple times in sometimes informal transactions.

What Do All These Have in Common?

It all ties together through the use of a computer. Computers are located everywhere. In most cars, the computers automatically change the time for seasons. The tire pressure monitoring systems require computers to detect errors, which connects back to your dashboard to notify you that you have low tire pressure. For the Zumwalt, this warship holds 16 efficient data systems, with effective ways to repair the computers when needed. Computers can always run into problems. Fortunately, with proper training and knowledge, you can learn how to overcome similar challenges.

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