Cybersecurity, OTA updates and working with hackers

Todd Benoff, Partner – Products Liability at Alston & Bird

Ahead of his presentation at AutoSens Detroit this week on “What component and system manufacturers can do to guard against liability from out-dated laws”, Todd Benoff, Partner – Products Liability at Alston & Bird takes five minutes out to answer some of our questions. We hear his thoughts on cybersecurity, automotive product liability and opportunities from working with hackers…

What’s your main focus as head of your firm’s Connected & Autonomous Vehicles Group?

Making sure that we are bringing everyone to the table and that all of their voices are heard. The emerging connected and autonomous vehicle issues impact many different areas in your companies and in my firm – many of which have not historically interfaced.

You’ve written about product liability, cyber security and hacking on connected cars – in that context, are any particular companies in the auto sector doing interesting work?

Because I am a nerd (and a car guy) I think all of the developments are interesting. But for obvious reasons, the most interesting work is not discussed outside of the company. Even the work done at the Auto-ISAC level is closely guarded.  As it must be, when cybersecurity is on the line.

How will over-the-air updates change automotive product liability?

OTA updates are definitely a game-changer. We have already seen plaintiffs’ lawyers argue that the absence of OTA updates is a “defect.” And as I will discuss during my presentation, it is not too hard to see another group of lawyers arguing that the presence of OTA updates is also a “defect” from a cybersecurity standpoint, because it creates a potential attack vector for the control functions of the HAV.

Autonomous functionality can be undermined even at component level – where should the responsibility lie?

This is an issue that could be its own presentation. In fact, I initially hoped to address it in my presentation. If AutoSens is good enough to have me back, this would be a great topic for another seminar. The intersections in the supply chain present unique challenges because the code for each link in that chain is a “black box” to the other links. On top of this, different states have different laws that can insulate component manufacturers from liability in certain circumstances. So the answers to these questions will be highly fact- and geography-specific.

What opportunities are there to work with hackers in a way that improves cyber security in this sector?

There are opportunities – both good and bad. The bounty programs that Tesla and other OEMs have instituted are examples of the “good.” But even exploits by researchers can turn “bad” when plaintiffs’ lawyers get hold of them. I touch briefly upon a few examples of this in my presentation.

What are you particularly looking forward to at AutoSens Detroit?

I’m interested in seeing the new tech and getting feedback from the engineers about the legal issues discussed above.

You passed the bar in California 20 years ago, but studied originally in Virginia – what prompted your relocation?

The beaches of Southern California are much nicer than the beaches of Virginia.

We also spotted you’re a Rugby player – not something we usually see on an American biography, tell us more!

I played second row for the University of Virginia in college and law school. I was fortunate enough to have a Welsh coach and a number of international students to help me learn the game.

I also used to row crew in high school. So I guess I’ve always enjoyed UK sports.

You’re based in downtown LA – any personal tips for visitors?

Do not stay downtown.  In most other cities in the world the downtown area has the best food and music. In LA it is just a business district that stands empty on the weekends. I think that’s because LA is really 30 or 40 different small cities stitched together; it doesn’t follow the traditional model. So I would recommend that visitors stay in Santa Monica, which has great restaurants, music, and people-watching. And then drive north on the PCH to Santa Barbara, which is a beautiful drive along the coast to an even more beautiful city a few hours away.


There’s still time to book your ticket to hear Todd Benoff at AutoSens in Detroit this week. He is speaking on Day One (May 24) at the M1 Concourse.

Register to attend here >>

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