Transportation Hacking

The hacking of transportation can be found in science fiction and starting to be seen in real life. In the movie The Italian Job traffic lights in Los Angeles are hacked to aid in a robbery. Hacking of transportation systems where everything is controlled by computers is made easy in today’s world. Anything from cars, to trains and traffic lights all have the potential to be hacked.


Modern cars are controlled over CAN, controller area network. This network is made up of two wires that connect all electronics of the car. Items that are controlled over CAN are the engine, transmission, brakes, steering, and the body. These components look for specific signals on the network and then perform the action that correlates with that signal. To hack these modern vehicles, a device simply needs to be connected to the two CAN network wires and send out its own signals.  Given enough time, one can “figure out” the manufacturer specific protocol for the vehicle by watching CAN bus traffic and correlating changes with driver input.

Example of CAN traffic on a car

This picture shows an example of bus traffic on a car after it is decoded so it can be read easily. As you can see some of the important messages on the bus such as gear position (Vehicle_Gear), and accelerator pedal position (Accel_Ped_Pos).

Tuning houses, who have already done this work, sell aftermarket solutions that do not require any automotive communication expertise to install.  A number of CAN development tools are available if one wishes to develop a custom solution. If someone wanted to cause malicious harm to someone’s car they would have to physically attach something to the network. “A vehicle’s OBD port enables anyone to access a vehicle’s internal networks, send malicious messages, communicate with ECUs, and update ECU firmware using standard and low-cost off-the-shelf data logging and programming equipment.”

In the movie Fast & Furious 6 an electrical chip is shot off of a special gun and it attaches to a BMW. Once it is attached it takes control of the vehicle and locks one of the front wheels causing the car to crash. This is possible through the CAN network and telling the ABS module to apply the brakes on a specific wheel, but the way it is done in the movie is impossible. The electronic chip that was attached to the car would have to be physically connected to the two CAN wires for this to work. Here science fiction has the theory right but how it is executed is wrong.

Fast & Furious 6 electronic chip scene

Traffic Control Systems

Traffic lights are no longer controlled individually at each intersection. Each intersection is run by its own system where it can change the traffic lights on its own based on traffic at that location as backup. “These systems consist of intersection traffic signals, a communications network to tie them together, and a central computer or network of computers to manage the system.” This system works autonomously to improve the flow of traffic through a city and reduce travel time for motorist. This central computer also allows manual operation of each intersection’s traffic lights. This computer could be hacked remotely to gain control of these traffic signals.

Example of a traffic control system

In the movie The Italian Job Lyle hacks into the Los Angeles traffic control system. From there he grid locks certain intersections to dictate which way traffic will flow. By doing this he is able to get an armored car to go to a certain location in the city. Lyle is also able to control the subway trains and stop them wherever he wants using the same traffic control system. Here science fiction is spot on what is possible if someone were able to hack into one the traffic control systems.

Italian Job gridlock directing armored truck


Trains are now being outfitted with wireless electronic controls. Doing so allows trains to be operated outside of the locomotive itself to be moved around the train yard. They are capable of controlling the speed of the train, brakes and the emergency brake. These devices are also used to drive the train along its course. It’ll maintain the train’s speed and apply the throttle or brakes when necessary to reach a desired speed. As a safety feature this wireless device has to be near the train for it to function, if not the train will apply the brakes automatically and bring the train to a stop. These devices could be taken control of if the wireless security was hacked. This could be done using a computer and a radio modem that operates on the same frequency as the train’s wireless controller.

Operator controlling train remotely

Railroads themselves have gone to electronic controls for switching trains over to different rails. Alstom makes a Smartlock Interlocking system for doing this. By having computers control the rails it can automatically switch the interlocks based on where the specific train is heading without any input from a human. This system also includes a remote maintenance systems for servicing the rail interlocks. This just provides another vulnerability for hackers to allow manual operation of these interlocks.

Example of an interlock


No hacking of transportation systems today has been done to cause harm to anyone. These systems keep advancing in technology that aid in our everyday life. The only hacking of these systems that is done today is by car enthusiasts that want to unleash more potential out of their cars. These systems all being electronically controlled have the potential to cause harm if in the wrong hands. That is if they are hacking into the system directly or remotely. Science fiction does a good job of getting the systems right that could be hacked related to transportation. On the other hand the methods used to hack these systems are slightly off from what would actually have to be done in some examples.