Cybersecurity student Samuel Hollifield was always interested in electronics and computers, a passion he attributes to his father.
His father, a coal mine mechanic, introduced him to cars. Though his father passed away at a young age, Hollifield continues his legacy by pursuing a career in automotive technology. Hollifield honors his late father by being a participant in the Community College Internship (CCI) Program at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).
“For years I’ve been fascinated by the cat-and-mouse game that is modern cybersecurity. Only within the past couple of years has the concept of a vulnerable vehicle really become a possibility,” Hollifield said. “My chief motivator is to uncover and thwart cyberattacks, and I find it incredibly inspiring to do research in a challenging field that is still in its infancy.”
Vehicular computers can be infiltrated relatively easily because many automotive systems do not have fault-proof security measures. This susceptibility poses a threat to vehicle functions and electrical grid operations.
“The primary network on which many critical vehicle components operate is incredibly vulnerable. This network has shown grave susceptibilities, including remote control and data collection,” Hollifield said. “Both activities have severe privacy implications.”
Under the guidance of cybersecurity software engineer Michael Iannacone, Hollifield contributes to the creation of a vehicle systems test bench that will allow researchers to manipulate automotive networks. The test bench exists outside of the vehicle and allows for the modular configuration of automotive computers and sensors.
Hollifield splits his time between ORNL’s main campus and the nearby National Transportation Research Center. At the beginning of the project, he soldered connections for the infrastructure and assisted researchers in the development of a wiring standard. Now, his daily activities involve creating programs and scripts in Python and C to interface with Raspberry PI and Arduino components that can communicate with vehicles. Ultimately, researchers can utilize parts of a vehicle instead of a complete car, drastically reducing the cost for automotive applications.
“A three-year-old computer is antiquated, but a three-year-old car is modern. The first recall due to an automobile vulnerability happened in 2015, and surely more will follow,” Hollifield explained. “With the advent of electric cars and grid security, it’s an important technology for ORNL to own and innovate.”
“I feel incredibly lucky to have been chosen for this experience and privileged to collaborate with some of the most brilliant minds in the world,” Hollifield said. “It’s been a humbling and awe-inspiring experience that has changed my perception of careers in science and my professional trajectory.”
After completing his associate degree in cybersecurity at Roane State Community College, Hollifield plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering at Tennessee Technological University. Eventually, Hollifield hopes to return as an employee to the location where he solidified his career choice: ORNL.
The CCI program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Office of Workforce Development for Teachers and Scientists (WDTS) and is administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE), managed by ORAU.