Driverless Cars Could be ‘Hacked’?


Trials for driverless cars were due to begin in selected UK towns and cities during January.   But some experts are expressing caution that the technology could be hacked into which could cause mass disruption on Britain’s roads.

A report from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) has stated that there might be ‘holes’ in the software that could leave them open to hackers who wish to use them in attacks designed to cause chaos on Britain’s roads or for other criminal purposes.

It is thought that around 98% of software applications are vulnerable to attack and there have been some well-publicised examples of disruption caused to computer systems in both entertainment and business.  It is believed that if similar weaknesses can be found in the software components of driverless vehicles, then hackers would be able to override the internal controls, intentionally causing crashes, posing a threat both to life and the British economy.

However, there is little doubt that the advanced safety systems being built into modern cars and which will be developed for driverless car technology are already making a significant contribution to reduction of collisions with the added benefit of reduced insurance premiums.

The report released by the IET suggests that autonomous cars could be widespread on Britain’s roads in around 15 years, which provides plenty of time to ensure that concerns about hacking can be overcome.

Thilo Koslowski, the Vice President of research group Gartner agrees with the view of IET, saying that the concern will become greater as technology becomes more integrated into car systems with potential for control of a vehicle being compromised.

But Koslowski believes the threat is at present minimal as the cars that are currently being trialled have multiple control points, making it difficult for hackers to take complete control of an autonomous vehicle.

It should also be noted that so far, successful hacks into the technology have all required hardware access to the car’s systems and it has been impossible to do so outside laboratory conditions. With hacks hard to carry out, as well as Google and other companies pledging to improve their security, the government is continuing its push towards making the technology viable on British roads.

Driverless cars have only just begun their trial stage in the UK, and this alone is expected to take 18-36 months, with three cities taking part. Trials involve both cars with a qualified driver in the driver’s seat as well as cars with no driver at all.

Overall, many manufacturers believe that these vehicles – once they have demonstrated their practicality – will be far safer than ordinary, human-driven cars. This is a point proven by the Google driverless car which has only crashed once since testing began: and that was when a human took the controls.

As well as improving safety for its passengers, it is also expected that driverless vehicles will be able to ease congestion, as their navigation systems will be able to re-route them away from traffic. In addition, it is expected that the systems will be able to gather detailed data providing the Government and other road safety and planning organisations with a detailed picture of Britain’s road use, informing future road and traffic planning.

Public acceptance: a long way off?

Recent research for AA Cars showed that only 12% of AA members said they ‘can’t wait to take their hands off the wheel of a driverless car’ but that sentiment rose to 16% in the 25-34 age group and 15% among 18-24 year olds.

The trials will take us closer to seeing fully autonomous vehicles on our roads but it will take some time for them to become commonplace.  The research showed that many drivers are still resistant to change as 65% enjoy driving too much to ever want the vehicle to take over from them.

David Bruce, director of AA Cars said: “Cars are already becoming more automated with the introduction of assistance systems that, for example, aid parking, keep a safe distance from the car in front, warn of lane drift, monitor blind spots, provide electronic stability control and autonomous emergency braking, as well as adaptive cruise control and so-on.  All contribute to road safety and reduce insurance costs.

“But there is a big leap of faith needed by drivers from embracing assistance systems to accepting a fully automated car and there will be concern about security of the systems that operate such vehicles, including the risk that they might be hacked into. They will have to prove themselves before the public places its confidence in them.  If a vehicle is hacked into it will be a major setback and the companies developing autonomous operation are working hard to ensure that this cannot happen.

“Technology is not a prison – we should embrace these advances as ultimately it will make travelling safer and more reliable for everyone.”

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