Harold received a tip that there was a well-known hacker turned corporate now living in Pittsburgh, so he had to check it out. Somewhere in Shadyside, he met with Chris Valasek, who is now the Principal Autonomous Vehicle Security Architect at Cruise Automation. Harold had no idea what any of this meant (and neither did we). So we asked him.

What exactly do you do? I just read an article that you hacked a Jeep.

At Cruise, I run the team responsible for security for self driving cars to ensure that no one hacks them. We have a great team of people who spent their careers hacking things, so we’re good at building defense systems.

For me, hacking and breaking has always been something I’ve liked and was good at. When I was a student at Pitt I used to come downtown and hack people’s wireless; I was constantly breaking thing to see how they worked. In 2012, my buddy Charlie and I got a grant from DARPA and had access to two cars to see if we could find vulnerabilities. We were able to hack into them, but had skeptics saying we were plugged into the car’s system directly and it wasn’t remote access. That lit our fire to get remote access. We had weeks on end where we wouldn’t make any progress, but then we accessed the car remotely and things kind of blew up. It started as just two buddies working on a project, and then we realized the scale and severity of it. We’ve worked at Uber and now Cruise together, and work toward ensuring other people can’t hack into cars through cellular connections.

That sounds really cool! So what are you doing in Pittsburgh? You could take your skills anywhere.

I moved away (from Pittsburgh) after college for a few years, but I’m from Ford City and I love Pittsburgh, so I always knew I wanted to come back. I have a strict “I won’t move from Pittsburgh” clause in my negotiations, so I let companies know right away I’m staying in the ‘Burgh. This is where I started my career in automotive security and where my people are, so I really have no reason to ever leave. It’s home.

How far away do you think we are from true self-driving cars populating the road?

Honestly, I don’t really know. Charlie and I recently gave a talk in Vegas and discussed that there’s 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.

My role is to secure cars, but I hope it’s sooner than later because they’ll be safer than people on the road. 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 the human error we see every day is eliminated.

I want to get into technology, but it seems to be changing so fast. How or where should I start?

People ask me this often, and my best answer is that the barrier to entry is so low, so just get started and see what you like. Experts are sharing research and insights widely on the Internet, and you can buy a decent computer for $200. Compared to 20 years ago, technology is accessible to the masses, and it’s on you to dig in and start learning. For autonomous and the embedded security systems we work on, it all comes back to a chip. Start looking at every day things like your fridge, your speakers, your car, and you’ll be surprised by how interconnected it all is.

What is your favorite place to take out-of-owners?

I live in Shadyside, so we usually pop over to Walnut Street because we can walk over and there’s always something going on. I also have to give a shout out to my local watering hole, Shady Grove Bar. Tell them Chrissy Good Times sent you and they’ll know you’re in good company.