If you follow the news at all, you’ve probably heard something about the development of self-driving cars. But have you really thought about what it means to have a self-driving car? One with technology that could be taken over by hackers?
Hacking Is a Serious Issue
After various hacking scandals in the past few years involving everything from credit card information to the contents of people’s phone clouds, data security is a prominent focus. Hacking a driverless car adds a new set of risks — a breach could mean people getting injured or even killed.
Hackers already breached the onboard system of a Jeep from ten miles away, crashing it into a ditch. This might have been the wakeup call people needed to start to realize what a threat automobile data could be in the hands of hackers. Manufacturers have to look into the possibility of threats, even if it’s something that customers don’t necessarily know about. If issues like this were to happen more frequently, they could cause serious panic among consumers.
For self-driving cars, the hacking potential is high. Originally it was thought that a hacker would have to gain access to the computer system in the car to take control over it, but a security researcher found out fairly recently that this is not the case.
The researcher found that the LiDAR technology that’s used in many self-driving vehicle prototypes could be tricked with just a small laser and a pulse generator. This fools the car into thinking there are obstacles around it when there aren’t, which could lead to it stopping or swerving.
The hack only costs around $60 in parts, and works up to 300 feet away from the car. Aiming the laser doesn’t require a ton of accuracy, making this hack something almost anyone could do.
If we’re going to make the switch to autonomous cars, we’re going to want a 100 percent success rate. People aren’t going to want to take the risk getting into one of these vehicles if they’re worrying about someone taking control of it. The motor industry may emphasize safety, but these problems fall under a category that is just now being recognized as a problem. These aren’t the typical safety issues that car manufacturers are used to.
Steps Towards Safer Cars
GM is taking steps in the right direction. In 2014 they created the position of product cybersecurity chief to address the growing problems with automobile security. More recently, they announced a plan that promises not to take legal action against any hackers that disclose security flaws they find in the company’s cars to GM. This plan is pretty rare among car manufacturers: Tesla is the only other company with a similar program.
This program gives the company an opportunity to detect the flaws in their technological systems that they may not have known about and take action against them. Learning about these flaws as quickly as possible is extremely beneficial in gaining the trust of customers and keeping them a step ahead of widespread hacking problems.
But How Soon Will This Happen?
The rise of self-driving cars poses another question: Are they really going to completely take over the roads? In theory, it’s a pretty great idea. Human error accounts for over 90 percent of road accidents, leading to 1.3 million road deaths each year.
Self-driving cars could virtually eliminate these deaths. Young teens as well as senior citizens won’t have to worry about white-knuckling a steering wheel on the highway. The change could lead to people becoming more accomplished because they can enjoy mind-expanding activities like reading a book or catching up on work tasks while on their commute. In addition, this could significantly reduce the amount of drunk drivers out on the roads. Any drinker could get home safely without putting others in danger.
The future before us is most likely filled with combined function automated cars, which are expected to become more widespread within the next four years. Fully automated ones still have a ways to go.
In addition to the issues with security, there are many other hurdles to consider, such as legal and insurance issues. How will traffic laws be changed to figure in self-driving cars? Should it be necessary for a licensed driver to be in one at all times just in case? Or can we use self-driving cars to pick up the kids from school or send Grandma to her doctor’s appointments? All of these things and more need to be considered before fully automated cars are heavily integrated into mainstream traffic.
Realistically, by the time the legal hurdles are worked out, the security on these cars will be impeccable. The supercomputer technology needed to compute everything happening while on the road will also be practically perfected.
Cars are already equipped with features like automatic braking and systems that parallel park your car for you. Given technology like this, fully automated cars don’t seem too far off.
The Ethics Problem
There’s also the issue of ethics. How is a driverless car going to respond in a situation in which hurting someone could be inevitable? Should it be the passenger’s decision on how to respond or will it already be programmed into the car? How can a car make an ethical decision?
This could impact whether a car is ever truly going to be driverless. Should they be developed to always have a manual override option in the case of something like this?
Another option would be just letting the lawmakers or designers decide what the car would be programmed to do. If, for some reason, the car is unable to be stopped and the choice is to hit the person coming in front of it or to swerve and risk injuring the passenger, what should be done?
It’s a tricky issue that will probably require a lot of debating before it’s solved. Ethics is a human value and it’s debatable as to whether it’s possible for that to be automated and programmed into a machine.
Should Hacking Be Insured?
Another point to think about is the potential of hacking being covered by an insurance policy. If this is such a large and dangerous issue, something should be worked out so the consequences don’t fall back on the innocent passenger inside the car.
If the car is crashed because of something out of the passenger’s control, it should definitely be taken care of. Getting insurance agencies to willingly cover this, though, could prove to be a difficult task.
The industry could already be in danger when driverless cars become more widespread. Companies will have to shift from personal liability to product liability. If the companies take enough of a hit, hacking insurance is something that they’ll consider taking on.
Integrating the New Cars
Fully integrating driverless cars onto our roadways could take a while. Putting autonomous cars on the roads alongside human drivers could increase the risk of those manual drivers. Research shows that humans change up their driving styles when they’re on the roads with driverless cars. They tend to copy the driving patterns of the autonomous cars and keeping less space between them and the car they’re following.
While the driverless vehicles have an almost instantaneous reaction time, human drivers have a reaction time that’s far slower. This could lead to them being more likely to rear end vehicles and get into more accidents.
Should You Be Worried?
For now, the dangers are under control. If other automakers follow in the footsteps of GM, there will be an increased focus on pinpointing any flaws in security and ensuring they’re fixed. Plus, with the time that it’s going to take for fully automated cars to become widespread on roadways, companies can make sure the security underpinning this technology is as strong as possible.
After the proper security increase, someone must be skilled and possess a lot of money and time in order to crack a driverless car. The process may still be doable, but the range of people that will be able to do it is going to be far smaller — a dramatic drop from the range capable of using the LiDAR laser trick now. Given a boost in insurance, those in self-driving cars should be well-protected from any potential hacking incidents.
By the time automated cars are available to the widespread general public, they should be safer than any vehicle available right now.