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Can Hackers use our Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems to Compromise our Cars?

[ 1 ] Posted by on January 18, 2013

tire pressure monitor

Millions of vehicles have been installed with wireless tire pressure monitoring sensors (TPMS) over the past 15 years, and that number continues to increase. A study conducted by Rutgers University and USC in 2010 suggests that these wireless TPMS signals can be used against you by hackers trying to access your vehicle’s computer system but this issue continues to remain in debate.

What are the realities and security risks of wireless TPMS sensors? The answers might surprise you.

Is Your Wireless TPMS Responsible for Your Dropped Calls?

Simply put: no. While wireless TPMS sensors use radio frequencies to transmit pressure data and other information to the vehicle’s electronic control unit (ECU), the frequencies are different from the ones used by cellphones. Wireless TMPS sensors use a frequency between 315 and 450MHz. Cell phones utilize frequencies between 698 and 2,690MHz.

If your cell phone is dropping calls while you’re driving, it’s likely because the signal has been interrupted as it was transferred from one reception tower to the next.

Could Someone Hack Your Vehicle Through Wireless TPMS?

Technically, yes, but the reality of the situation is much less severe (and unlikely) than you’d imagine.

In August 2010, Rutgers University and the University of South Carolina released a joint study that raised questions about the security of RF-based tire pressure monitoring systems. This led some scientists to suggest that unscrupulous individuals could attack the wireless TPMS and use the system to track a vehicle or force false warning lights.

Before you panic about a possible breach of security, it’s important to understand the limitations and likelihood of such an attack.

How Likely Are You to Have Your TPMS System Hacked?

TPMS sensor transmitters are low signal devices. While it is true that their signal is unencrypted, it would be highly unlikely for anyone to read the signal from more than 130 feet away. This makes tracking your vehicle from a stationary location impossible and chances are if someone were following you within 130 feet, you’d notice them pretty quickly.

The idea of someone forging a warning light is equally unlikely. The hacker would have to stay within 25-30 feet of the vehicle for a prolonged period of time. This kind of security breech is incredibly impractical and nearly impossible.

No two TPMS sensors are the same. They operate on multiple frequencies, data speeds, ID lengths, and protocol encoding. Even if a shady individual was able to decode one sensor type, there are over 150 different variations in operation and this number is growing rapidly. Wireless TPMS sensors aren’t the stuff of movie magic and the efforts a would-be hacker would have to do through to simply annoy you aren’t worth the payout.

Your wireless TPMS sensors are harmless and in fact, they’re working to keep you safe. Here is a fantastic blog post from Car Talk on tire pressures, and how under-inflated tires can affect safety.

Author Jason Lancaster is interested in tire technologies and doesn’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about his TPMS system getting hacked. He writes for Olathe Toyota Parts Center where you can check out what your tire numbers mean.

PS: Digging this story, news or review? Let us know! Comments open.

About Jakk: Jakk Ogden is the founder of Technology Blogged. 25, with a love for good writing, you'll find Jakk playing 'Drag Racing' on his Nexus 5 and rocking a pair of Grado headphones. If you love technology, be sure to subscribe to his feed for unique editorials. View author profile.

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  1. Alfred says:

    Hey, Jakk, I get that you think it’s highly unlikely that the TPMS could be hijacked, but what if this is the tech shown here? Let me know if you think this could be a re-purposed TPMS device.

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