Remote immobilization has chance of abuse

Ability to stop vehicles remotely points to potential for other uses

Published: May 1, 2017, 1:30 PM
Updated: November 21, 2021, 3:10 PM

Remote parking feature on BMW Display Key

One of the things people fear most with the technology push toward autonomous vehicles is the chance that somebody can hack into the system and remotely cause your vehicle to crash, or cause a mass shutdown of cities by idling roadfuls of vehicles.

With the connectivity available in today’s vehicles and the computer control over vehicle systems such as acceleration, braking, steering, shifting and fuel delivery, it’s not an unfathomable scenario, but a mass shutdown is an unlikely one.

Still, there is the chance for individual vehicles to be remotely shut down, as evidenced by OnStar’s ability to track and stop an Illinois vehicle at the request of law-enforcement agencies in 2012. There is also a case this past winter where a stolen BMW was tracked and the thief was locked inside the car (again with the help of BMW’s customer assistance department) and unable to engage a gear from the electronic transmission in order to drive away.

But can other agencies also use the technology to prevent wrong-doing or to protect their property?

As asks, can banks or finance companies remotely immobilize vehicles when loans are in default? Similarly, can governments restrict the movements of parents and ex-spouses to force them to make support payments?

As the website explains, the technology is basic, with a starter interruptor that disables the ignition by sending a series of electromagnetic pulses to the vehicle’s electronic systems, which shuts down the engine as a fail-safe.

Right now, authorities have to go through proper channels to use the immobilizing technology, which means there has to be a source of criminal transgressions and threat to public safety to allow them to obtain permission to use it, but what if it becomes as simple as demonstrating a claim to a vehicle?