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Remote control puts technology in the driving seat

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There are advantages, it seems, to driving around in an old clunker of a car besides paying relatively low insurance rates and not going ballistic over another little dent.

Two recent news stories bring that message home. An article in Wired magazine discussed how hackers took control of a Jeep Cherokee remotely. It led Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. to recall 1.4 million vehicles that can be hacked.

Shortly afterward, Tesla Motors Inc. announced it had sent a software patch to address security flaws in the Tesla Model S sedan that could allow hackers to take control of the vehicle.

A security researcher was quoted as saying: “We shut the car down when it was driving initially at a slow speed of 5 mph. All the screens go black, the music turns off and the hand brake comes on, lurching it to a stop.”

Although Tesla claimed the “hackers” were, in fact, inside the car when they turned it off, it nevertheless developed and deployed an over-the-air update to Model S owners to address the “vulnerabilities,” according to the news reports.

Repeatedly having to change your credit cards because of hackers getting into various systems is bad enough, but when you start to talk about hackers taking control of your car, it's downright scary — at least for people with relatively new cars

Still, there could be an upside to the ability to take control of machinery remotely. If it's possible for the “bad guys” to get hold of cyber-enabled highly computerized machinery, then perhaps the good guys could do it as well.

Maybe the police could use remote technology to slow down and catch unsafe speeders.

And just think of the difference it would have made if an air traffic controller had been able to take control of the Germanwings airplane before its co-pilot crashed it into the French Alps, killing 150, or if Malaysian air traffic controllers had been able to gain control of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH-370 before it veered off course and disappeared from radar under still-mysterious circumstances.

For that matter, one cannot help but wonder how different things would be had the whole 9/11 tragedy been prevented, and, thanks to the ability to remotely take control air traffic controllers had landed the hijacked planes before they crashed into the World Trade Center, Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, with everyone landing safely and the terrorists locked in jail forever.

Yes, there's plenty of cause for concern that the ability to remotely commandeer vehicles can lead to even more tragedy if it's placed in the wrong hands. But with the appropriate caution and controls in place the benefits of such systems can far outweigh their dangers and keep people safer.

And in the meantime, we owners of old cars will tootle along happily.