When Does Car Hacking Become “Tampering”? The British Government Seeks Guidance

When a government decides to take a look at your particular field of experimentation, it’s never necessarily a cause for rejoicing, as British motor vehicle enthusiasts are finding out through a UK Government consultation. Titled “Future of transport regulatory review: modernising vehicle standards“, the document explains that it is part of the process of re-adopting under UK law areas which have previously been governed by the European Union. Of particular interest is the section “Tackling tampering”, which promises a new set of offences for “tampering with a system, part or component of a vehicle intended or adapted to be used on a road“.

They go into detail as to the nature of the offences, which seem to relate to the production of devices designed to negate the safety or environmental features of the car. They’re at pains to say that they have no wish to target the legitimate car modification world, for example in motorsport or restoration, but it’s easy to see how a car hacker might inadvertently fall foul of any new rules. It’s worried the enthusiasts enough that a petition has been launched on the UK parliamentary petition site, making the point that the existing yearly MOT roadworthiness test should fulfill the function of taking any illegal vehicles off the road.

We’re always wary when governments wander into our purview, and given where this is being written it’s fair to say that British governments have had their fair share of ill-considered laws in their time. But before we call doom upon the future of car hacking for Brits, it’s worth remarking that they don’t always make a mess in this arena. The rules for the Individual Vehicle Approval test for putting a home-built car on the road are far from a bureaucratic nightmare for example, instead being a relatively sensible primer in building a safe motor vehicle.

So we’d suggest not to panic just yet, but perhaps any British readers might like to respond appropriately to the consultation and the petition in the interests of nudging them in the right direction.

Thanks [Adam Quantrill] for the tip.

CAN Bus Wireless Hacking / Dev Board

[Voltlog] has been hacking away at the CAN bus console of his VW Golf for quite some time now. Presumably, for his projects, the available CAN bus interface boards are lacking in some ways, either technically and/or price. So [Voltlog] designed his own wireless CAN bus hacking and development module called the ESP32 CanLite (see the video below the break). The board was tailored to meet the needs of his project and he claims it is not a universal tool. Nevertheless we think many folks will find the features he selected for this module will be a good fit for their projects as well.

In his introduction of the design, he walks through the various design decisions he faced. As the project name suggests, he’s using the ESP32 as the main controller due to it’s wireless radios and built-in CAN controller. The board is powered from the car’s +12V power, so it uses a wide input range ( 4 to 40 V ) switching regulator. One feature he added was the ability to switch automotive accessories using the ST VN750PC, a nifty high-side driver in an SO-8 package with integrated safety provisions.

The project is published as open source and the files can be pulled from his GitHub repository. We noticed the debug connector labeled VOLTLINK on the schematic, and found his description of this custom interface interesting. Basically, he was not satisfied with the quality and performance of the various USB-to-serial adapters on the market and decided to make his own. Could this be a common theme among [Voltlog]’s projects?

A word of warning if you want to build the ESP32 CanLite yourself. While [Voltlog] had intentionally selected parts that were common and easy to purchase when the project began, several key chips have since become nearly impossible to obtain these days due to the global parts shortage issue (it’s even out of stock on his Tindie page).

If you want to dig deeper into CAN bus hacking, check out this talk that we wrote about back in 2016. Do you have any favorite CAN bus development boards and/or tools? Let us know in the comments below.

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Using CanoPy To Visualize The CAN Bus

As cars have become more sophisticated electronically, understanding the CAN bus that forms the backbone of automotive digital systems has become more and more important for hacking cars. Inexpensive microcontroller CAN interfaces have made obtaining the raw CAN bus traffic trivial, but interpreting that traffic can be pretty challenging. In order to more easily visualize CAN traffic, [TJ Bruno] has developed CanoPy, a Python tool for visualizing CAN messages in real time.

A basic PC CAN interface simply dumps the bus’s message traffic into the terminal, while more sophisticated tools organize messages by the address of their intended recipients. Both of these approaches digitally lift the hood and let you examine what your car is thinking, but the wall-of-numbers approach makes finding the patterns that hold the keys to reverse engineering difficult. Automatically plotting the data with CanoPy makes finding correlations much easier, after which the text-based tools can be used to focus in on a few specific addresses.

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Small Open Source Vehicle Hacking Platform

[Florian] and his engineering team at Munich-based bmc::labs has developed a clever set of prototyping boards for vehicle hacking and rapid product development, collectively called the bmc::board or bmc::mini. These stackable development boards were initially designed for in-house use. The team took a general purpose approach to the design so the boards could be used across a wide range of projects, and they should be useful to anyone in the field. [Florian] decided to release the boards to the community as open-source and certified by OSHWA (Open Source Hardware Association).

There are four boards currently defined, with several more in the works:

  • mini::base — Main microcontroller board, STM32F103-based
  • mini::out — I/O board with CAN bus, JTAG, etc.
  • mini:: grid — RF board providing GPS and GSM capability
  • mini::pit — local wireless connectivity, WiFi and Bluetooth, and 2nd CAN bus

At 54 x 42.5 mm, these boards are pretty small; a form-factor they describe as “exactly half a credit card”. We like the Wurth WR-MM family of stacking connectors they are using, and the symmetrical pinout means you can rotate the cards as needed. But at first glance, these thru-hole connectors seem to limit the stack to just two boards, although maybe they plan move to an SMT flavor of the connector in future designs permitting taller stacks.

If you’re into vehicle electronics and/or vehicle hacking, definitely take a look at these. You can check out [Florian]’s bmc::board Hackaday.io project page and the team’s GitHub repository for more details. Here’s another project by team member [Sebastian] using one of the future bmc::bike modules to eavesdrop on ECU communications, where he sensibly advises the reader “First, pull over and get off the bike. Never hack a two-wheeled vehicle while riding it!”.

No discussion of vehicle CAN bus tools should omit the work of Craig Smith, who literally wrote the book on hacking your car, and whose talk along with Hackaday’s own Eric Evenchick of CANtact fame we covered back in 2016. [Florian] has started a CrowdSupply campaign where you can see some more details of this project and a short promotional video.

Raspberry Pi Hitches A Ride In A 1989 BMW Dashboard

It probably won’t surprise you to find out that a 1989 BMW 325i doesn’t have much in the way of electronic gadgetry onboard. In fact, what passes for an in-dash “computer” in this vintage Beemer is just a digital clock with a rudimentary calendar function. Not content to waste his precious dashboard space any longer, [Ryan Henderson] used his time in quarantine to replace the clock module with a Raspberry Pi.

Nestled in a custom laser-cut housing is a touch screen LCD module that connects directly to the GPIO header of a Pi Zero. Combined with some Python code, this provides a very slick multipurpose interface for pretty much anything [Ryan] wants. Right now he’s got it hooked up to a GPS receiver so he can figure out things like speed and acceleration, but the only real limit on what this little drop-in upgrade can do is how much code you want to sit down and write.

Thankfully, it sounds like [Ryan] has done a lot of the hard work for you. He’s put together a Python library that allows the user to easily draw analog gauges on the screen. The faces are parametrically sized, and even have custom minimum/maximum marks. Of course if you’d rather just throw some text and images on the screen, that’s accomplished easily enough with existing libraries such as PyGame.

[Ryan] says he’s also working on some code to better integrate the Pi into the vehicle’s systems by way of a Bluetooth OBD2 adapter. In the most basic application that would allow you to throw various bits of engine data up on the screen, but on more modern cars, you could potentially tap into the CAN bus and bend it to your will.

While the physical size and shape of this particular modification is clearly focused on this model and year of BMW, the general concepts could be applied to any car on the road. [Ryan] has recently started a GitHub repository for the project and hopes to connect with others who are interested in adding a little modern complexity convenience to their classic rides.

The reality is that cars become more dependent on their onboard computers with each passing year. Already we’re seeing Tesla owners struggle with cooked flash chips, and things are likely to get worse before they get any better. While undoubtedly there are some that would rather keep their daily driver as simplistic as possible, we’re encouraged by projects like this that at least let owners computerize their cars on their own terms.

Nissan Gives Up Root Shell Thanks To Hacked USB Drive

For the impatient Nissan owners who may be joining us from Google, a hacker by the name of [ea] has figured out how to get a root shell on the Bosch LCN2kai head unit of their 2015 Xterra, and it looks like the process should be the same for other vehicles in the Nissan family such as the Rogue, Sentra, Altima, and Frontier. If you want to play along at home, all you have to do is write the provided image to a USB flash drive and insert it.

Now for those of us who are a more interested in how this whole process works, [ea] was kind of enough to provide a very detailed account of how the exploit was discovered. Starting with getting a spare Linux-powered head unit out of a crashed Xterra to experiment with, the write-up takes the reader through each discovery and privilege escalation that ultimately leads to the development of a non-invasive hack that doesn’t require the user to pull their whole dashboard apart to run.

The early stages of the process will look familiar to anyone who’s messed with embedded Linux hacking. The first step was to locate the board’s serial port and connect it to the computer. From there, [ea] was able to change the kernel parameters in the bootloader to spawn an interactive shell. To make things a little easier, the boot scripts were then modified so the system would start up an SSH server accessible over a USB Ethernet adapter. With full access to the system, the search for exploits could begin.

A simple script on the flash drive enables the SSH server.

After some poking, [ea] discovered the script designed to mount USB storage devices had a potential flaw in it. The script was written in such a way that the filesystem label of the device would be used to create the mount point, but there were no checks in place to prevent a directory traversal attack. By crafting a label that read ../../usr/bin/ and placing a Bash script on the drive, it’s possible to run arbitrary commands on the head unit. The provided script permanently adds SSHd to the startup process, so when the system reboots, you’ll be able to log in and explore.

So what does [ea] want to do with this new-found exploit? It looks like the goal is to eventually come up with some custom programs that extend the functionality of the in-dash Linux system. As it seems like these “infotainment” systems are now an inescapable feature of modern automobiles, we’re certainly excited to see projects that aim to keep them under the consumer’s control.

Remoticon Video: Learn How To Hack A Car With Amith Reddy

There was a time not too long ago when hacking a car more often than not involved literal hacking. Sheet metal was cut, engine cylinders were bored, and crankshafts were machined to increase piston travel. It was all in the pursuit of milking the last ounce performance out of every drop of gasoline, along with a little personal expression in the form of paint and chrome.

While it’s still possible — and encouraged — to hack cars thus, the inclusion of engine control units and other systems to our rides has created an entirely different universe of car hacking options, which Amith Reddy distilled into his very popular workshop at the 2020 Remoticon. The secret sauce behind all the hacks you can accomplish in today’s drive-by-wire cars is the Controller Area Network (CAN), the network used to connect the array of sensors, actuators, and controllers that lie under the metal and plastic of modern cars.

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