Elon Musk knows that if a hacker ever took control of every Tesla and sent them all to Rhode Island, it would spell the end of the company. Describing his company’s cars as a “laptop on wheels,” Musk outlined in a question-and-answer session how the company avoids such a nightmare scenario. It’s a tough challenge, but Tesla has taken several steps to protect itself against such attacks.

During a National Governors Association conference session on innovation held Saturday, North Dakota governor Doug Burgum asked Musk how Tesla protects against hacks. Burgum has a particular interest in this area: he’s served on the board of a number of software companies, and until 2007 he was senior vice president of the Microsoft Business Solutions Group.

Musk agreed that cybersecurity was a major concern, particularly as the company works to develop its fully autonomous driving system over the coming years. The major risk, Musk explained, was a fleetwide hack.

“In principle, if someone was able to hack all of the autonomous Teslas, just as a prank, they could send them all to Rhode Island, across the United States!” Musk said. “And then we’d be like well, okay, that’ll be the end of Tesla, and there would be a lot of angry people in Rhode Island.”

The car protects against this in a number of ways. First, passengers will maintain override authority on whatever the car is doing. If it starts doing “something wacky,” an override button could take charge that no software is capable of overriding. This button also cuts access to the remote servers.

A Tesla car has multiple subsystems, individually encrypted.
A Tesla car has multiple subsystems, individually encrypted.

The other way Tesla can avoid such a scenario is through the car’s multiple subsystems. It’s not just one setup controlling the whole car: there’s separate systems controlling the powertrain and brakes, for example. All these systems have their own encryption, so defeating one does not gain access to the entire car.

“They have the same problem with cellphones,” Musk said. “It’s kinda crazy today that we live quite comfortably in a world that George Orwell would have thought is super crazy. We all carry a phone with a microphone that can be turned on at any time without knowledge, a GPS that knows our position, a camera… all of our personal information. We do this willingly and it’s kinda wild to think that’s the case.”

Musk noted that both Apple and Google face the same challenge as Tesla to ensure a systemwide hack never materializes.

“I don’t wanna tempt fate here, but Tesla’s pretty good at software compared to the other car companies, and I do think it’s going to be an even bigger challenge for other companies to ensure security,” Musk said.

Watch Musk’s speech to the governors below. The full video gives a unique insight into Tesla and some of the challenges it faces, but Musk’s response on cybersecurity starts at the 59 minute mark:

Photos via Getty Images / Justin Sullivan, Flickr / Neeta Lind