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Securing the future of automobility

Dr. Mitra Mirhassani poses in front of a vehicle

There are two teams in the University of Windsor’s centre for automobility cybersecurity research.

There’s the blue team, which works diligently to create secure, impenetrable hardware for automobility applications and the red team, whose mission is to destroy it.

This is Canada’s first organization dedicated to countering threats to the connected transportation marketplace. Launched in 2021, UWindsor’s SHIELD Automotive Cybersecurity Centre of Excellence is home to a growing multi-disciplinary research team that specializes in artificial intelligence; machine learning; and advanced analytics and is led by a powerhouse pair that is rapidly gaining notoriety in Canada’s auto industry.

Within the last three years, founders Mitra Mirhassani and Ikjot Saini have garnered six accolades naming them leaders across Canada’s automotive, cybersecurity and tech sectors. Most recently, Mirhassani received the 2021 Donald S. Wood Leadership Award, bestowed by the Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association (APMA), for showing exemplary public leadership in Canada’s auto sector.

“Our most challenging research is detecting maliciously placed hardware Trojans, which can wreak havoc on and even destroy sensors embedded in vehicles, infrastructure and the manufacturing supply chain,” says Mirhassani, an electrical engineering professor. “This is happening now in the Canadian supply chain.”

Dr. Mirhassani and computer science professor, Dr. Saini, note that new vehicles have more than 100 million lines of computer coding and numerous sensors transmitting wireless data. Their job is to protect that information.

“Hardware and software vulnerabilities could put personal information and vehicle safety in jeopardy,” Mirhassani says.

She points to the recent microchip shortage in the auto sector as an example of a situation that can lead to hasty purchasing decisions from non-reputable sources.

“Hardware or software Trojans can be inserted during manufacturing without us knowing they are there. Transportation systems are especially susceptible to attacks from malicious actors due to the complexity, implementation costs, and lifecycles of equipment and platforms.”

This global issue has led SHIELD to forge partnerships with leaders in Canadian manufacturing and international automotive cybersecurity, including APMA, Canadian Urban Transit Research and Innovation Consortium (CUTRIC), Automotive Cybersecurity Research Group (ASRG), and Autocrpyt, a South Korean entity that provides consultation to major original equipment manufacturers everywhere from Europe to Japan.

In addition to developing research to protect connected, autonomous, secure and electrified vehicle technology, one of SHIELD’s mandates is to help upskill and train the Canadian workforce. The centre will also promote knowledge transfer among manufacturers, researchers and the public to ensure that policies and standards reflect advances made in the field.

“We hope that this partnership will help to advance a cybersecurity culture shift in the industry in Canada,” APMA president Flavio Volpe says about teaming with SHIELD to develop market-based technologies and academic programs catered to the needs of industry.

“There is much work to be done to protect our collective interest in advancing this country’s globally competitive automotive sector.”

Saini says they will offer consultation and test services to small- and medium-sized Canadian companies to help them keep pace with technological advances.

 “Open-access publications and public webinars will widely share the latest information,” she adds.

Beth-Anne Schuelke-Leech, an associate professor of engineering management, innovation, and entrepreneurship, will guide SHIELD’s public policy and assist with knowledge transfer and integration of artificial intelligence.

Currently, SHIELD trains undergraduate and graduate students from engineering and computer science, but Mirhassani and Saini plan to expand their reach across campus into the social sciences, law and business. The research centre has already spawned the university’s first student-run Artificial Intelligence Club.

With files from Sarah SacheliThis article was featured in the latest issue of WE, the Faculty of Engineering’s annual magazine. WE is distributed annually to alumni, students, faculty, staff and industrial/community partners of the faculty. If you would like to receive WE electronically and UWindsor Engineering’s quarterly e-newsletters, join the faculty’s mailing list.