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Hackers could stall just 20 per cent of driverless cars to cause traffic deadlock

Hackers would only have to stall around 20 per cent of driverless cars to cause traffic chaos and deadlock, researchers have found.

The team from the Georgia Institute of Technology looked at what it would take for future hackers to wreak havoc by randomly stranding driverless cars.

“Unlike most of the data breaches we hear about, hacked cars have physical consequences,” said Peter Yunker, who co-led the study.

“With cars, one of the worrying things is that currently there is effectively one central computing system, and a lot runs through it.

“You don’t necessarily have separate systems to run your car and run your satellite radio. If you can get into one, you may be able to get into the other,” said Jesse Silverberg who co-led the study with Yunker.

In simulations the researchers froze traffic in Manhattan nearly solid by randomly stalling just 20 per cent of cars during rush hour.

“At 20 per cent, the city has been broken up into small islands, where you may be able to inch around a few blocks, but no one would be able to move across town,” said graduate research assistant David Yanni.

Not all cars on the road would have to be connected, just enough for hackers to stall 20 per cent of the vehicles on the road. This means that if just 40 per cent of all cars on the road were connected, hacking half would suffice.

Hacking 10 per cent of all cars at rush hour would debilitate traffic enough to prevent emergency vehicles from expediently cutting through traffic that is inching along citywide. The same thing would happen with a 20 per cent hack during intermediate daytime traffic.

“Manhattan has a nice grid, and that makes traffic more efficient. Looking at cities without large grids like Atlanta, Boston, or Los Angeles, we think hackers could do worse harm because a grid makes you more robust, with redundancies to get to the same places down many different routes,” Yunker said.

The researchers left out factors that would likely worsen hacking damage, thus a real-world hack may require stalling even fewer cars to shut down Manhattan.

“I want to emphasise that we only considered static situations - if roads are blocked or not blocked. In many cases, blocked roads spill over traffic into other roads, which we also did not include. If we were to factor in these other things, the number of cars you’d have to stall would likely drop down significantly,” Yunker said.

The researchers also did not factor in ensuing public panic nor car occupants becoming pedestrians that would further block streets or cause accidents. Nor did they consider hacks that would target cars at locations that maximise trouble.

The aim of the study was to highlight importance of cyber security as driverless cars near commercial release. They said that splitting up the digital network would be one way to improve security as it would make it impossible to access too many cars through one network.”

“If you could also make sure that cars next to each other can’t be hacked at the same time that would decrease the risk of them blocking off traffic together,” lead author Skanka Vivek said.

Nvidia’s driverless car chips have been developed with an AI system that constantly monitors the actions of the driverless car and slows it down to a stop in the event of a hack. 

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