“You can go further faster in Pittsburgh.”
“What can we do that would be epic?”
That’s what white-hat hacker Chris Valasek and buddy Charlie Miller asked themselves in 2015, not long before remotely taking over the computer systems of cars in motion – controlling everything from the stereo to the steering, brakes and transmission. Video of that demonstration project went viral, catapulting Chris and his friend into international news reports and Congressional hearings. It also prompted Chrysler to recall a million vehicles to patch cybersecurity vulnerabilities.
“Indeed, you can take over a car and wreck it, send somebody into a ditch, which is terrible,” Chris says. “But that’s how you figure out how to prevent it from happening.” He is adamant about sharing his research since so many companies are attempting to secure vehicles: “By publishing our work, researchers can look at similar vulnerabilities in other cars to better protect them. There’s always a chance someone uses it for nefarious purposes, but there are a lot of things out there like that, and we feel the benefits of publishing our work far outweighs the cons.”
Formerly the security lead at Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center in the Strip District, Chris recently reunited with Charlie as principal autonomous security architects for Cruise Automation. Cruise is based in San Francisco, but Chris is working remotely from his Shadyside home. “I’m from Ford City and I love Pittsburgh, so I always knew I wanted to end up here. This is where I started my career in automotive security, it’s where my people are, so I really have no reason to ever leave. It’s home.”
For those interested in pursuing technology, he urges young people -- including those who may not be interested in spending four years in college -- to tinker with the technology around them: it could lead to interesting work in fields like cybersecurity and robotics, which show signs of having jobs in high demand for decades to come. At 16, his parents gave him a Compact Presario computer. Within two weeks he had taken it apart to figure out how it worked. He rebuilt it (with a bit of help from folks at the local Radio Shack), and used it to play video games and chat with friends.
So we wanted to know, how far away are we from true self-driving cars populating the road? Chris and Charlie recently gave a talk in Las Vegas to discuss the various levels of autonomous vehicles from 0-5. Zero being a car from the 70s with no modern technology attached to it, 5 being the car doesn't need any information and can just go out and drive -- which doesn't exist yet. The Uber and Argo cars on the road in Pittsburgh are a 4, which have autonomous capabilities, but they're still constantly gathering information. “If you think about it, autonomous vehicles can't drive drunk, they can't check Twitter or eat fast food or put on makeup; they don't get distracted. They can see 365 degrees and capture everything at once. So my hope is they are on the roads sooner versus later because they eliminate the human error we see every day.”
Chris spent six years working in various tech companies in Atlanta before returning to Pittsburgh, first working remotely for IBM, his last employer in Georgia. “Atlanta has a special place in my heart, and it was good for me as a person to strike out on my own in a new city, but this place is for me,” he says of Pittsburgh. “It’s big enough. It’s a city, but it doesn’t give me the feeling it’s going to swallow me whole. I can drive half an hour from here and be in the woods, on the river wake surfing.” He owns a place on the Allegheny River near Leechburg,where he heads on summer weekends with friends. He also loves to bring visitors to Walnut St, which is walking distance from his house and always has something going on. He also said he's be remiss not to give a shout out to his local watering hole, Shady Grove Bar: “Just tell them Chrissy Good Times sent you and they’ll know you’re in good company.”