Just as it did with EVs, Tesla is also at the tip of the spear when it comes to software-defined vehicles (SDVs). The automaker is constantly pushing out updates that add new features or modify existing ones in its vehicles. But sometimes Tesla locks the functionality of parts physically installed in the car already behind a paywall, which is a practice that other automakers are more frequently adopting (much to the ire of some car shoppers). We’re looking at you, BMW.
As you might imagine, just as with devices like iPhones, hackers have attempted to “jailbreak” Tesla vehicles with limited success. Some of the attempts work, but almost without fail the security exploits necessary to execute those hacks are “patched” out in a software update from Tesla rendering them ineffective. From there the cycle begins again. However, it looks like a team of hackers from Germany may have figured out a way to hack a Tesla vehicle in a way that can’t be patched out later, making the jailbreak permanent.
According to a report from The Drive, a security researcher and three PhD students have found an exploit in Tesla’s AMD processor-based Media Control Unit or “MCU.” The team then “tricks” the car into thinking certain purchases have been made. That means features that require microtransactions like the heated steering wheel, footwell lights, or even the $2,000 “Acceleration Boost” could be turned on for free via the hack.
So, why is this hack irreversible by Tesla? According to the white paper from the hacker team, their exploit can’t be patched out by Tesla because it targets the AMD secure processor inside the MCU and not any parts or systems made by Tesla. As long as someone has the knowhow and physical access to the vehicle, this hack can be executed on AMD equipped Teslas. It is currently unknown if the hack can access the Tesla Full Self Driving suite, which currently costs $15,000 to unlock. However, the team plans to talk about the hack at the BlackHat 2023 cyber security event, so they may be saving that detail for their presentation.
If this hack is actually effective and starts to spread, how could Tesla combat it? We suppose that replacing the physical MCU with a replacement unit could undo the hack, but we’re just guessing. Will Tesla start checking for hacks during service visits? If so, will it replace the MCU without permission or input from the owner and then charge them for it? Would the automaker resort to “bricking” offending cars via an OTA update? Some or all of those possibilities could be on the table. We’ll continue to watch this story closely to see how Tesla reacts.