With over a billion vehicles in the world, one might find the idea of identifying each and every one of them impossible. However, a system for classifying individual vehicles does exist and has for many years. Vehicle identification numbers (VIN) are unique to each automobile and are used for all sorts of purposes, from registering a new car, filing an insurance claim, or investigating a vehicle history report.
The United States Department of Transportation and the International Organization developed the system as a joint effort for Standardization following three decades of a fragmented and confusing identification structure. After car production ramped up during the 1950s, each car manufacturer used their own system of classification for their vehicles, which became complex and inefficient. In 1980, the universal VIN number was introduced, unifying all automobiles by identifying them under one system.
VIN numbers are a set of seventeen alphanumeric characters, with each character representing a different portion of the vehicle. Each number is exclusive to each vehicle and the system is used for all vehicles on the road, from trucks to trailers to motorcycles to busses. A vehicle’s VIN number can be found on the driver’s side dashboard and engine block and is sometimes also found on the passenger doorframe, vehicle firewall, and radiator support bracket.
While understanding how VIN numbers work may seem daunting, they are actually quite simple. The first character is used to identify the vehicle’s country of origin. The second and third characters represent the motor company that manufactured it and the automobile’s make. The purpose of characters four through eight depends upon the type of vehicle being identified. If the vehicle is a passenger car, the four characters represent the vehicle’s body style, series, engine, and restraint/safety systems. For busses, trailers, and motorcycles, the characters identify the vehicle weight and horsepower.
The ninth character is used as a way to check for mistakes in the VIN number. Character ten represents the automobile’s model year, character eleven identifies the location of the plant where the vehicle was crafted, and the final six digits are the automobile’s serial number. Although VIN numbers may appear complicated and incomprehensible, they can be easily understood by anyone with a bit of knowledge of how the system works.
So far, Google has led the way for innovation in the field of smart cars, announcing 100 experimental self-driven vehicles earlier this year. However, in a departure from its past, these new cars possess absolutely no driver controls at all. But while Google continues to rule the tentative field of smart cars, “smart streets” are already making their way into our world. Although we’ve had things like in-pavement detectors and timed traffic lights for a while, newer advances in the realm of smart roads are beginning to come to fruition.
Carnegie Mellon University, based in Pittsburgh, recently began a trial run of a “smart signal” project in its hometown. The smart signal project incorporates motion detection along with signal-to-signal communications in traffic lights. The project consequently saw a 40 percent reduction in stop times and an average of 26 percent reduction in travel times.
This technology is also able to monitor air quality, pedestrian crowding, and wind intensity. Apart from Pittsburgh, other cities like New York City, San Jose, and Chicago are also seeing the installation of smart signals. Similarly, Kolkata, India’s city planners are hoping to introduce a “quick response” system that utilizes Wi-Fi. This prototype system will be able to communicate emergency reports and assist with user navigation.
Despite all the excited talk about the possibilities and promises of smart cars, it appears that smart roads will end up outpacing them. Whereas smart cars face the challenges of long-term development cycles, users unwilling to surrender full control over their vehicles, heavy computing and bandwidth requirements, rigid legal regulations, and opposed automakers, smart roads can easily be incorporated into our existing infrastructure. In fact, Gartner, Inc., a technology research and advisory firm, predicts that most new automobiles will feature some form of connectivity by the year 2020.
Smart road features enjoy a competitive marketplace and relatively inexpensive and simple development cycles, so it makes sense that smart infrastructure is popping up everywhere—from toll booths that scan license plates, to radio receivers on freeways monitoring traffic volume, to even smartphone apps that work with parking meters to display vacancies to users.
While Google continues to pave the way for a future filled with smart cars, it seems as though our roads will be ready, hopefully ensuring a world of cleaner air, reduced traffic, and safer streets.
The growing concern about “hackable” automobiles was a topic of discussion at an early August 2014 Black Hat conference in Las Vegas. Now a group of coders and security researchers are answering the call to secure vehicles with digital features.
The group introduced what they are calling their five “critical capabilities” to automobile manufacturers at the Las Vegas-based DEF CON conference last weekend, hoping to help close a number of security holes in current and future car software. Among the requirements outlined by the group are mandatory testing of digital features, a black box within every vehicle to record events that may transpire, secure updates of car software, segmentation of different functions within cars, and a safe disclosure program to allow researchers to freely share security flaws in vehicle software.
Along with the group’s five-point list, a petition on Change.org has been created to further pressure the auto industry into acknowledging worries about security.
Apart from Tesla, which has received praise for the lengths it has gone through to secure its electric cars, very few automobile companies have taken effective measures to make their products unhackable.
Researchers Chris Valasek and Charlie Miller shared a study detailing their exploration into the vulnerability of 24 different vehicles. While neither of the two men was able to remotely control any of the cars, a number of automobiles did not perform well on the test due to the amount of “attack surfaces” they possessed. Among the failed cars were the Infinity Q90 and Jeep Cherokee, cars which Valasek and Miller own, respectively.
Despite the lack of reports of damage produced by successful attacks on digital vehicles, there is a growing interest in exploiting and manipulating car software to cause destruction. It is this rising intrigue that is fueling the concern among hackers and security experts to increase measures to secure digital automobiles.
To this end, Valasek and Miller have released an intrusion detection system. When plugged into a vehicle, the system can defend a car against an attack by shutting off network connectivity once hit.
The United States government has also taken notice of the rise in security concerns for digital automobiles, providing a grant to Valasek and Miller through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to continue their research.
Although there have been no successful damaging attacks on digital cars to speak of, researchers like Valasek and Miller are spearheading the effort to prevent such attacks before they become a reality.
It happens every summer: children are more likely to experience fatalities due to swimming pool drownings, dehydration and overheating during outdoor play, and perhaps most sadly—because it involves adult negligence—child deaths caused by babies and young children being left unattended in cars. These children, even when they are old enough to know how to unbuckle seat belts and get out of booster seats, are generally unable to unlock a car on their own.
When a baby or child is left unattended in a turned off vehicle for just a few minutes, death and permanent brain damage are often the tragic outcomes. But even in the face of dozens of news reports of cases involving child deaths due to carelessness in what are being dubbed “hot car deaths,” less than 20 states in the US have laws on the books about the legality of this ferociously perilous practice.
Who will be the voice for these children, and more importantly, what can be done to keep this tragic and needless child car death spike from occurring each summer? Take Florida, for example, which does have a law that children cannot be left in an unattended car. This law is useless, as it allows for kids to be left in such scenarios for as long as 15 minutes—children can easily pass away in far less time than this, especially toddlers, infants, and exceptionally fragile newborns.
Stricter laws, more severe penalties and sentencing, and better outreach such as more informative and further reaching public service announcements about hot car deaths during the summer months could help to curb the incidence of these heartbreaking events. However, while these are all great ideas, nothing would be more effective than a nationwide law that would make leaving children unattended in a parked car for any period of time illegal. While some may not agree, the convenience people are seeking by not removing their babies and young children is simply not worth the risk of more child deaths each summer.
The “Kids and Cars” program founded by Janette Fennell has been instrumental in passing state laws in an effort to lessen the numbers of child deaths caused from being left in hot cars. While she notes that it is currently illegal for a passer-by to break a window to help a suffering child in most of the country, Tennessee has new legislation that allows cars to be broken into in these cases. Tennessee is the first state to pass a “do-gooder” law of this nature. Those who back the Kids and Cars initiative, among others, are hopeful this will be the impetus for other states to pass similar laws to protect children in danger.
President Obama’s recent virtual excursion at a McClean, Virginia center for automotive and highway research made for plenty of media fodder. While this entertaining jaunt was a show of Obama’s interest in creating safer driving environments for US citizens, there is a much deeper issue at play here.
While the need for serious infrastructure repairs on roads, highways, and bridges is nothing short of an eminent threat to motorists and their passengers, it seems the US House of Representatives and Senate cannot seem to reach agreement on any bill that would solve serious and long term issues for American roadways. Instead, in recently reaching across the aisle, Democrats and Republicans were only able to agree on a short term scope, which will leave plenty of big problems in high traffic areas while also leaving other seemingly smaller issues like potholes behind. This “emergency room instead of preventative care” sort of measure will leave drivers unsafe, while also pressing the house and Senate to have to sit back down at the bargaining table again in less than one year.
To add insult to injury for US citizens and workers, these short term, small time solutions will be paid for from the pensions of workers. While pensions and fixes to roads don’t seem to have anything to do with one another, apparently, this has been the only way to get even the smallest amount progress behind an infrastructure repair plan of any kind.
The hope is that after the time delineated in the bill may give automakers a chance to come up with more smart car options, as well as vehicles that get better gas mileage, and more diversity in hybrid vehicles. With this, more jobs in the automotive industry to support the need for greener driving options to improve the health of our environment is the goal. Obama has definitely thrown his support behind proposals that will incentivize carmakers to churn out smarter and more efficient vehicles, openly noting after his driving simulation that American motorists need and expect cars with higher safety standards, better gas mileage, and the job creation that will be generated by these expectations.
Hopefully, after the short provisions of the latest infrastructure legislation, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate will be able to work together in a manner that will create a longer-term plan to both repair roads and perhaps provide funding for more smart car research.