I’m extremely impressed, and maybe a little nervous, about the automotive industry’s fascination with “intelligently networked cars.”

The principle is simple: Our actual vehicles become the nodes for a massive, moving Wi-Fi network, one that would bounce data around between points, i.e. that trusty four-door or other car, all while alerting onboard computers of any problems up ahead. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Wi-Fi, like you’ve got at Starbucks or at home. It’s more like a souped-up, high-powered, encrypted ad-hoc network.

Imagine a car (or several) slamming on their brakes due to an accident up ahead. A system like this would instantly know that this took place, and could communicate that to all other oncoming autos for half a mile. It’s not hard to see why this concept has gotten tremendous support from the likes of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has already said it would like to see all cars outfitted for such a system by 2013. And Ford Motor Company is actively exploring this technology. The latter is no surprise; Ford has spent the past year touting its Sync Destinations cloud-sourced traffic data solution. This would be like a progression from that, one that wouldn’t shock a consumer market already acquainted with integrated GPS/satellite and cellular networks.

The primary use of this intelligent network would be to offer real-time, instantly accessible data that could ease congestion, save lives and, at the least, burn less fuel (as fewer cars would be hanging around, waiting in colossal cluster fumps of traffic). But there’s also potential in a secondary use-case: lifestyle apps.

For example, imagine parking structures rigged up to communicate with this network. Drivers would more easily be able to contact their destination, reserve a space, and even get directions that guide them to a specific spot. Intelligent roads could warn drivers of pothole maintenance ahead, so they could adjust their routes. Toll booths would be able to let people know the lines in front are jammed, or how much their toll is, and even accept an instant credit card payment ahead of time. And there are many more benefits for safety purposes, government works or emergency response.

There are literally endless ways to use this type of technology, much of which can’t even be imagined yet. And that’s where I get a little nervous.

What happens if we increasingly rely on such systems? Would they become targets for a tech wunderkind to tunnel into? Sure, this version is highly encrypted, but that hasn’t stopped hackers from breaking their way into other “locked-down” networks. And given that we’re talking about our transportation routes, the stakes could be really high. In the hands of kids, hacks could turn into irritating, inconvenient pranks that go from funny to dangerous in a heart beat. That alone is scary. Now imagine about what could happen if the hacker wasn’t just some rambunctious kid, but a genuine terrorist. I shudder to think.

What’s your take on this? Do the benefits of intelligent cars outstrip the risks? Or should the potential security vulnerabilities end this concept before it even really gets underway?

[via Connected Planet Online]