There has been speculation for months about a so-called "Elon Mode", which is supposed to be hidden in Teslas and open up completely new possibilities for drivers (you can find out more here). In June, a hacker who only calls himself "Green" reported that he had discovered this mode using a very complicated method. He didn't go into detail.
Three IT experts from Germany also managed to penetrate the depths of the Tesla software and locate the mode mentioned there. Unlike "Green", the hackers not only shared their discovery with Tesla, but also publicly presented the method at the Chaos Computer Club conference "37C3" in Hamburg.
In a lecture entitled "Back in the Driver's Seat: Recovering Critical Data from Tesla Autopilot Using Voltage Glitching" Christian Werling, Niclas Kühnapfel and Hans-Niklas Jacob, what they achieved in their research laboratory at the TU Berlin with a circuit board from a scrapped vehicle. Before the presentation, the three doctoral students spoke to “Spiegel” about their work.
According to this, it was possible to find out about Tesla's company secrets using tools worth around 600 euros. However, this was not possible via the software. Reading the system and accessing the data only became possible after a hack of the hardware on which the Tesla system works.
The experts gained access using so-called “voltage glitching”. This involves changing or interrupting a processor's voltage, leaving less time to process instructions. In some cases, this in turn causes the chips to deviate from their original behavior and cause various errors, such as incorrect loading of commands, disclosure of data or skipping of individual work steps. By precisely timing the manipulation, certain reactions can be triggered reliably.
The experts told “Spiegel” that they assume that every car from the manufacturer is affected by this error. It is therefore very likely that competing companies will also use this method to obtain company secrets.
It goes on to say that once you have access to the hardware, you can understand and replicate how the assistance systems work.
However, for the researchers it's not about money, she confirmed to "Spiegel". Rather, the aim is to show where the weaknesses of certain systems are and thus help to avoid attacks. They emphasize that Tesla's IT security is generally at a high level and that as a driver there is no need to worry about the security gap that has been found. In order to carry out the “voltage glitch”, you not only have to carefully remove the hardware, but also place it and its equipment back in the vehicle after the hack.
There is therefore little reason to fear a new wave of unauthorized vehicle access, as occurred with Kia and Hyundai vehicles last year. In contrast to the Tesla hack, with the vehicles from South Korea a simple USB cable was enough to outsmart the systems (you can find out more here).
What the experts were able to find in the hacked Tesla system is exciting. In addition to a deleted but apparently not overwritten video of the driver whose vehicle was equipped with the cracked circuit board, they also discovered a secret driving mode. The option called “Executive Mode” allows the car to be driven without manual intervention, it is said. In doing so, the Berliners confirmed the mode called “Elon Mode” at the time, which “Green” had demonstrated in a YouTube video.
Sources: 37C3, Spiegel, CCC