There is no shortage of sci-fi movies where the protagonist in the story is struggling against their adversaries’ ability to track their every move with surgical precision —The Adjustment Bureau, The Matrix, and Enemy of State among them. Although this used to be the domain of speculative and science fiction, it’s essentially become a fact of life with all the forms of technology we willingly carry— each capable of tracking our every move. More and more this applies to cars, which are built with technology engineered to connect to larger networks, thereby making it possible to track. Personal cybersecurity (or opsec) has become a growing area of interest in the technological age with individual users adopting off the grid solutions, VPNs, private browsers, and disabling tracking features on apps and devices all in the name of increased personal security. In an era where cars are sold to us wired in, how do security-focused consumers maintain privacy? Join us as we explore the ramifications of increased connectivity in cars and how individuals might be able to circumvent being monitored 24/7 with “off the grid” automotive solutions.
How Cars Get Wired In
Not all modern cars are automatically connected to the internet or inherently equipped with tracking capabilities. However, a growing number of new vehicles are being designed with built-in connectivity features, often referred to as telematics. These features can include internet connectivity, GPS navigation, and emergency SOS services. Connected services might be used for navigation, remote unlocking, vehicle diagnostics, and more.
Even if a car is not directly connected to the internet, many vehicles come with GPS systems, which can be used for location tracking in various scenarios such as theft recovery. Additionally, some vehicles have emergency response services like GM’s OnStar or Hyundai’s Blue Link, which use cellular technology to offer emergency crash response and other services.
However, older models and more basic trim levels of new cars may not come with these features, and not all drivers subscribe to the services that offer connectivity. Additionally, even cars with these capabilities are not universally “trackable” at all times due to user privacy considerations, legal restrictions, and the limits of technology (e.g., no cellular or GPS signal).
While many modern cars have the capability to connect to the internet or be tracked via GPS, it’s not accurate to say that all cars have this ability, and various factors influence whether a particular car can be tracked at any given moment.
An “air-gapped” car – a vehicle that is entirely isolated from internet or network connectivity– is possible, and in fact, many older or basic models of cars effectively operate in an air-gapped manner. These cars don’t have built-in connectivity features such as WiFi, Bluetooth, or cellular connectivity commonly found in modern vehicles.
However, creating a truly air-gapped car in the contemporary automotive landscape might involve deliberate efforts to maintain such isolation. As automotive technology evolves, connectivity is increasingly integrated into vehicles for various purposes like navigation, maintenance diagnostics, entertainment, and safety features. A car owner might choose to disable certain features or avoid connecting their vehicle to external networks to maintain a level of air-gapping.
WHAT IS AIR GAPPING?
In practice, ensuring that a car remains entirely unconnected could be challenging. Even without intentional network connections, there are ways a car might inadvertently connect or be connected to networks, such as through maintenance tools at a repair shop or via devices brought into the car by passengers.
In the future, maintaining an air-gapped car might become even more challenging as vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication technologies become more prevalent, allowing cars to communicate with each other and infrastructure like traffic lights. These advancements could make connectivity more intrinsic to the fundamental operation and safety of vehicles, making a truly air-gapped car more of an anomaly or specialty choice for those seeking such isolation.
Yes, vehicle-to-everything (V2X) technology can typically be disabled by the user, but doing so might limit certain functionalities and features that enhance the driving experience and safety. Manufacturers design V2X systems to be user-friendly and often allow users to manage connectivity settings, deciding what data they are comfortable sharing. Users can usually turn off specific V2X communication features through the vehicle’s infotainment system or other control interfaces.
However, there might be consequences to disabling V2X functionalities. These technologies are implemented to improve road safety, traffic efficiency, and overall driving experience. By turning off V2X communications, users might not benefit from real-time traffic alerts, emergency vehicle warnings, and other safety-enhancing information shared via V2X communication networks.
It’s also worth considering that as V2X technologies evolve and become more integrated into transportation infrastructures, there might be a push towards making certain V2X communications standardized and consistently operational to ensure road safety and effective traffic management. In such cases, the ability to completely disable V2X communications might be limited or regulated to maintain the integrity and functionality of the broader transportation ecosystem.
One possibility, as mentioned above, to avoid having your ride “on the grid,” is simply to drive an analog car that doesn’t have internet- or satellite-connected hardware. At the time of writing this, that applies to most of the cars which have ever been made or sold. But we live in a rapidly changing world, and several factors could complicate this solution. For one thing, it’s always possible that future regulations will require cars to carry some kind of tracking device which is installed manually onto older calls. A box like this could be required for driving behavior tracking purposes, as we’ve already begun to see with some insurance companies, as well as to enable V2X technology for increased safety.
It’s certainly possible that the legal system will create exceptions for older cars, particularly ones with historic value, allowing them to be “grandfathered” into whatever future regulatory framework crops up, but there’s no guarantee that this will be the case. It could very well be that in the future driving an untraceable car becomes illegal—if that happens, drivers will have to re-evaluate their reasons for wanting to drive off-grid cars against the risk.
Additionally, most of the cars that meet the “analog” criteria are gas-powered. The future logistics of driving a gas-powered car in a predominantly electric vehicle (EV) world will depend on various factors, including policies, market dynamics, and technological advancements.
As the transition towards EVs progresses, it’s likely that gas stations will become less prevalent, but they won’t disappear overnight. Gasoline-powered cars will still need to be serviced for quite some time, given the existing vast fleet of internal combustion engine vehicles. Some gas stations may start offering both gasoline and electric charging services, adapting to the changing automotive landscape.
In some regions, particularly rural or remote areas where the transition to electric may be slower due to infrastructure challenges, gas stations may continue to operate longer. However, in urban areas with a higher concentration of EVs, gas stations may become scarcer.
Moreover, policies and regulations could impact the availability of gasoline. Some countries and cities have proposed banning the sale of new gasoline-powered cars in the future, which would gradually reduce the number of such vehicles on the road. However, such policies would likely consider the need for a transition period and would ensure that existing gasoline-powered cars are still supported indefinitely. Such cars would likely be ‘grandfathered’ in to the new framework and by no means would it be impossible to keep driving your gas-powered car.
Manufacturers of gasoline-powered vehicles and related industry stakeholders may also adapt their strategies, potentially focusing on hybrid models or other technologies that still require gasoline but are more efficient and environmentally friendly.
For drivers of gasoline-powered cars, this shift could mean planning refueling more carefully and potentially facing higher fuel prices due to reduced demand. They might also find fewer maintenance services specialized in internal combustion engines.
While the logistics of driving a gas-powered car will undoubtedly change with the rise of EVs, a total lack of support or refueling options is unlikely in the near to medium term. Adaptation strategies from various sectors of the automotive industry and thoughtful policies will likely ensure a gradual and manageable transition.
Aside from gas-powered cars, it’s likely that a cottage industry could pop up to take cars that come wired into the grid from the manufacturer off the grid by making modifications to them. As things stand now the only considerations that would affect your ability to modify your own car in this way would have to do with its street legal status, although the future could certainly hold new rules and regulations. That said, some people may choose to enter the gray area and make ‘jailbreak’ style modifications to their vehicles anyway.
Beyond this, just as there are a number products that cater to consumers who are cognizant of cybersecurity (think VPNs, encrypted messaging apps, browsers that don’t track your data), it seems likely that products will be developed to increase the cybersecurity of individual drivers. Entrepreneurs selling modifications and aftermarket products, to say nothing of car makers themselves, may be incentivized to cater to this important segment of the car buying public.
In short, one way or another drivers will be able to stay off grid if they choose for the foreseeable future. If shifting events someday make that more difficult there’s one way drivers have managed to stay off grid from time immemorial—simply taking them off road.