With a few taps of her onyx manicure, Charlize Theron steers hundreds of hacked cars down 7th Avenue in The Fate of the Furious. Her elite team of hackers — hidden in an undisclosed location far away in an airplane lair — are remotely in control of a few hundred more. The car-hacking stunt is one of Fate’s biggest: Cars speed around corners and off showroom floors to create enough chaos for Theron’s supervillain Cipher to block a foreign minister’s motorcade so her team of bad guys can procure some nuclear missile launch codes from a Russian diplomat. Like everything in this franchise, it’s a lot.
Not that anyone expects the Fast serious to dutifully toe the line of reality, but just how possible is Cipher’s massive car ghost-hacking? Just to make sure I wasn’t at risk of a dreadlocked white lady taking control of my Volvo and driving me to Times Square (or worse), I talked to Charlie Miller, one of the two hackers to hack a Wired writer’s Jeep in 2015, about the possibility of a real-life car hacking.
“First off, there’s never been car hacking in real life that’s been done by a bad guy. To date, it has only been done by researchers,” says Miller, who now works as a security researcher at Beijing-based ride-sharing company Didi Chuxing.
From Miller’s couch, he and his co-researcher Chris Valasek controlled the air-conditioning and radio in Wired’s Jeep, even cutting the reporter’s transmission. “We did the most in terms of physical control,” Miller said. “We could accelerate, steer the car, use the brakes. It seems like we could do the stuff in the movies, but no one knows how to trick the system to do those things all at once.”
Another caveat: Cipher’s team isn’t that big. Her braintrust is basically comprised of her and a handful of other hackers somewhere in her flying lair. Miller and Valasek are the smallest team to pull off hacking one car successfully. “One car usually takes about ten people,” he says. And visibility is a problem: Cipher’s team likely wouldn’t be able to have good enough visibility for all those synchronized turns.
“She has the cars driving corners, all that stuff,” Miller said. “That begs the question of whether she knows the location of each car to make those turns. It’d be hard to steer each car if you weren’t within visual sight. Cars aren’t really designed to be remotely controlled like that.”
So there’s The Fate of the Furious fact-check you probably saw coming: No, Charlize Theron can’t possibly hack into thousands of cars to turn them into a gigantic battering ram. That’s good news for Russian diplomats (and they could use some these days).