Hackers beware: Students being tapped for automotive cybersecurity field

Today’s cars and trucks are loaded with technology, enabling drivers to touch screens for music, navigation, and communication, and helping ensure their safety on the road.

With all these features come hundreds of millions of lines of code to make 21st century vehicles run. They also make vehicles
moving targets for hackers.

The annual SAE CyberAuto Challenge hopes to counter security breaches by inspiring high school and college students to pursue careers in the field of automotive cybersecurity.

The five-day program, held at Macomb Community College, brings high school and college students in an academic and hands-on setting with researchers, hackers, and industry and government engineers to advance their skill sets in coding and cybersecurity.

“We like to call it a boot camp,” said Marc LeDuc, senior content development specialist at SAE International in Troy, which sponsors the program, now in its eighth year. “It’s intense but it’s a unique experience for students to get involved in cybersecurity, a field they might not have considered. It’s to help jumpstart their interest.”

Some 140 students from all over the globe apply to the free program each year. Forty-eight students will be chosen. The selections are merit-based and students must take a series of online classes and an exam.

Held July 21-26, the training program includes classroom lessons and discussions, and hands-on learning in automotive software, hardware, and electronics.

The automotive industry is looking for prospective career candidates for jobs in cybersecurity. Currently, there are no four-year academic programs for students in the field.

“The program gives the industry an opportunity to see these students in action, how they work in a team environment, their leadership skills, their inclinations toward security, and to understand their intellect,” he said.

Students have left the program and received offers for apprenticeships, internships, and jobs.

The program culminates in a 24-hour hackathon, where students, working side by side with mentors and advisors, attack a vehicle looking for cyber breaches.

“There are always opportunities to have success,” LeDuc said. “The idea is take some simpler success and really push the students to really go after and find more difficult avenues of attack, if you will.”

That education and expertise will become even more important as autonomous vehicles and smart grids become the norm.

“There will be more and more lines of code on these vehicles, more vehicles connected to smart grids or infrastructures, and the more potential for opportunities for someone with nefarious intent,” LeDuc said.

To learn more about the SAE CyberAuto Challenge, visit https://www.sae.org/attend/cyberauto. The application deadline is April 15. Apply at https://www.cyberautochallenge.us/moodle/login/index.php.

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