Quite a lot has happened in the last couple of years, but one of the biggest pushes we’ve seen come from our government is encouraging our nation as a whole to shift towards the use of electric vehicles (EV). Environmentally speaking, it’s the correct move as it is central to the decarbonization measures needed to stave off permanent impacts. EVs can provide quite a few benefits, such as improved fuel economy, lower fuel costs and maintenance (significant with gas prices hovering at record highs), better long-term performance, and arguably, the greatest benefit of significantly reduced emissions. While there are significant perks to driving an EV, there are also risks that come along with it that need to be addressed. Infrastructure around the mobility electrification of America needs a proper cyber security plan.

The return of electric vehicles

Electric vehicles reached their peak in the late 19th century, as they made up 33% of all vehicles. But once Henry Ford implemented his moving assembly line, gasoline-powered engines became cheaper and much more mainstream. It wasn’t until the 1990s, amid gas shortages and a broad emphasis on clean air initiatives, that EVs finally reemerged. But once again, high prices and looser environmental restrictions pushed EVs to the sidelines.

In the early 2000s, a small group of engineers made it their mission to revolutionize electric vehicles. In 2008, Tesla unveiled the Roadster, the first 200+ mile EV. Soon after, numerous automobile manufacturers began experimenting with new EV models, aiding their rapid adoption.

Making the EV push

There’s no doubt that we’ve seen far more EVs on the road in the last two years. In fact, an important piece of the recently announced Inflation Reduction Act designates $60 billion to move the nation toward clean energy for the future of our country and everyone in it. The idea is to do this by growing access to clean and efficient energy for all, then building the supporting technology that can demonstrate these actions. This agenda seeks to provide more Americans with affordable, clean, reliable power. For instance, the plan invests $2 billion to help auto manufacturers retool facilities to increase EV production and an additional $10 billion in tax credits to build other EV facilities, wind turbines and solar panels.

The Biden Administration aims to create 100% carbon-free electricity by 2035 and a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. It’s clear that the time for bolstering a life by prioritizing clean energy is here. Americans seem to be falling in line, too: In the last 10 years, the domestic EV marketplace has grown from 16,000 to more than two million vehicles, and automotive executives predict that more than 50% of vehicles on our roads will be all-electric by 2030.

Charging ahead

Charging stations are a necessity for EVs, and they can be found in private or public places, as well in the home — but depending on where an EV driver is traveling, the consistency in finding a charging station is not quite there yet. The number of charging stations increased from 3,394 in 2011 to more than 63,000 in early 2019. The issue is that, while this increase is good, it still is not enough to account for the amount of EVs already on the road, much less the wave anticipated in the coming years.

A nationwide system of EV charging stations will require thorough planning and a significant investment. Last year’s record infrastructure funding plan allocates $21.5 billion will be used for clean energy research hubs and demonstrations focused on next-generation technologies that are needed to achieve the goal of a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. According to the Department of Energy, the funding bill provides:

  • $500 million for demonstration projects in economically hard-hit communities, while $1 billion will be used for projects in rural areas.
  • $2.5 billion for advanced nuclear. This is meant to provide 24/7 clean electricity and create well-paying jobs.
  • $8 billion for clean hydrogen, which, ideally, will progress toward heavy trucking and industrial sectors that run without producing carbon pollution.
  • More than $10 billion for carbon capture, direct air capture and industrial emission reduction, which will provide opportunities for fossil fuel workers.

Significantly, a key part of the infrastructure plan allocates $7.5 billion to plan and build an extensive network of stations across the country. These are all monumental goals, and while exciting in some respects, one issue must be discussed: the cybersecurity infrastructure in relation to EVs, charging stations and the power grid.

EV charging stations and the grid

Due to the connection EV charging stations have to the electric grid, potential cybersecurity threats are finally being taken seriously. In general terms, the EV charging infrastructure is made up of a device (or set of devices) that waits for another device to connect and begin communicating — without the benefit of a third-party firewall or any other cybersecurity devices to act as protection.

Electricity generation and delivery are essential to everyday life in our country. Additionally, the U.S. electric grid is made up of all power plants and other means of generating electricity, with transmission and distribution lines and infrastructure that bring everyone the power they need. As it stands, our electric grid is up against cybersecurity risks from many different angles, including terrorists, criminals, foreign governments and hackers. A significant hit to the grid could bring devastating and widespread blackouts, which would impact EV charging stations, hospitals, gas stations, banks and families everywhere, among others.

Cybersecurity risks

Living in a world where we are constantly connecting increased items to the internet, so many things we use are always “connected”: appliances, industrial sensors and even our vehicles. The connectivity of vehicles has been a major leap forward for the automotive industry, but the problem is that the Internet of Things (IoT) opens everything connected to the potential for cybersecurity threats.

Earlier in 2022, a young information technology security specialist said he found flaws within a part of third-party software used by some owners of leading EV manufacturers’ vehicles that might allow hackers to control some of the vehicle functions remotely. The specialist stated that the flaws in the software allowed him to unlock doors and windows, start vehicles without keys, turn on the stereo system, flash headlights and disable the security systems. He added that he could also tell if a driver was present in the car. He claimed to have had access to more than 25 of these vehicles in at least 13 countries.

Additionally, in 2021, a U.S.-based pipeline came face-to-face with a foreign-fronted cyberattack that came about from a single password that was compromised. Not only did it halt the fuel supply process on the eastern coast, but it cost the company $4.4 million in ransom money. Even the most sophisticated of companies can fall victim to hackers.

Even though cybersecurity is a severe issue for EV manufacturers, their systems are still vulnerable to hackers, who found a way through open doors via a third-party vendor. As we watch the number of EVs grow on the roads, thousands of charging stations are at risk of being targeted by cyber attackers. With this growth, charging stations are expected to rise from 1.6 million units in 2021 to 2.1 million units this year. Imagine if a hack crippled charging stations everywhere. The more entry points there are, the more opportunities hackers have to break into and control even the most sophisticated EVs.

Addressing the risk

These stations are attached to America’s primary grid, so it’s emergent that they are equipped with the most extreme cyber security measures. Traditional automotive safety regulations and security standards simply do not safely cover the cyber threats that come with modernized connected vehicles. This complex and swift evolution has put charging stations especially at risk. Yet because charging stations are connected to the electrical grid, it’s crucial to ensure cybersecurity so that it remains reliable and robust.

To that end, cybersecurity technology should be built directly into charging stations themselves. An outside party is often required to secure tech, as it tends to lack necessary cyber protection. The growing adoption of EV charging stations also contributes to technology’s vulnerability, and certain key security measures may be overlooked. Currently, vehicle charging stations appear highly vulnerable to hackers. As more people choose to drive EVs, there must be heightened awareness and solutions for the cybersecurity weaknesses associated with EV charging stations. That should include everything from the devices and charging points to the infrastructure providers and operators of the energy distribution networks.

The bottom line is this: As the use of EVs increases and there are more charging stations planted nationwide, it’s more important than ever that we focus on implementing advanced cybersecurity measures that will secure all data that our EVs contain, as well as keep drivers safe.

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