Hacking major threat to driverless vehicle adoption

21 November 2014
By Edd Gent
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Driverless vehicles like Google's prototype could be vulnerable to hackers, according to the IET

Driverless vehicles like Google's prototype could be vulnerable to hackers, according to the IET

Attacks by hackers are one of the biggest threats to the widespread adoption of driverless or semi-autonomous vehicles, the IET’s cyber-security lead says.

Software systems must become far more reliable before the public and the government can have confidence in vehicles that are largely computer-controlled warned Hugh Boyes at the launch of an IET report on the future of autonomous vehicles

A recent report found that 98 per cent of software applications tested had serious defects – some with 10 to 15 faults each – he pointed out, and while car manufacturers make a considerable effort to make their products as safe as possible, the danger from hacking is simply not on their radar.

"We need to ensure that these vehicles don't have this level of defect. That's quite a challenge given the nature of the modern vehicle," he said.

"If we have the hacker community start to target vehicles, we can imagine a fair amount of chaos. We just have to look at what happens in London when one vehicle breaks down on a major artery into the city; the tailbacks that rapidly occur.

"If just one in a 100 vehicles, or one in 1,000, gets interfered with and ceases to operate as planned we can expect chaos on the roads. We don't want to be there. That's why cyber-security of autonomous vehicles will be critical."

The earliest autonomous cars will have some limited ability to "talk" to external traffic management systems, manage speed and distance from other vehicles, and ensure lane discipline, but fully driverless vehicles could make an appearance in about a decade's time.

According to Boyes, computer programmers working on these kinds of applications currently occupy an "interesting no-man's land" in the eyes of the court and he believes "black box" recorders would have to be fitted to autonomous vehicles to prevent intractable legal arguments between insurers about who was to blame for an accident, the driver or the software.

"We don't have the strict product liability for software as we do for hardware,” he said. "For autonomous vehicles, that's going to have to change, because they are cyber-physical systems. They're a combination of IT and hardware."

The jury is out on whether driverless cars can prevent accidents, 95 per cent of which involve human error. Dr Nick Reed, principal human factors researcher at the Transport Research Laboratory, said: "Are they going to be safer than human drivers? There's a long way to go before that can be proved. But we know that human error is a contributory factor in a lot of collisions."

The government has given the go-ahead for trials of driverless or semi-autonomous cars on public roads in selected UK cities next January and the move towards driverless vehicles is expected to take place gradually over the next 10 to 15 years, according to the report.

Self-driving electric "pods" with a top speed of 7mph will be trialled in Milton Keynes next year, but on a special pavement route rather than the road.

Professor Phil Blythe, chairman of IET Transport Policy, said: "There are clear safety benefits in getting vehicles to drive optimally and at a particular speed while interacting with the infrastructure. We're moving towards co-operative systems.

"The first trial will happen in the UK in January. Vehicles and traffic lights will be talking to each other – that's the first step."

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