We’re Only Just Starting To Understand The Side-Effects Of Driverless Cars

The dawn of driverless cars is almost upon us. Many people in industry seem certain that the largest revolution in personal transport since the invention of the car itself is less than a decade away.
Published: Sunday, August 9th 2015

(This article first appeared on BizCommunity)

Written by Mark Douthwaite


The dawn of driverless cars is almost upon us. Governments around the world are rapidly legalising the use of driverless vehicles on their roads and are working towards overcoming regulatory difficulties associated with their large-scale introduction. Meanwhile, some of the largest technology and automotive corporations in the world are investing heavily in driverless technologies. Many people in industry seem certain that the largest revolution in personal transport since the invention of the car itself is less than a decade away.

Whether this technology will ever mean we can give up all responsibility for driving is unclear. But the shift towards driverless cars won't just mean a change in the way we drive. It will undoubtedly have other implications for car owners, authorities and ultimately all of us.

While the large-scale introduction of fully driverless consumer vehicles appears to be around a decade away, the current generation of new cars is already highlighting some of the potential challenges. For example, in recent demonstrations funded by large car manufacturers, security experts were able to "hack" the onboard computers of ordinary vehicles and take control of braking, steering and engine functions, among other things. In one particularly alarming demonstration, a hacker was able to force the car to perform an emergency stop at high speed.

Safe and secure?

This increasing reliance on computers in modern cars is itself a major and well-documented safety and security challenge, that will be significantly heightened by the nature of truly autonomous vehicles. In such cases, the fundamental fact is that all systems within the vehicle are under the control of a piece of sophisticated software which will always be vulnerable to malicious attack and malfunction.

What's more, unlike many current vehicles, this software is likely to be directly networked to other vehicles and systems. This in turn introduces a whole host of safety and security complications beyond those experienced in current cars. For example, the complexity of processing data about the road and location and behaviours of surrounding vehicles means that small errors in the design or operation of the software could lead to collisions or other dangerous behaviours that could have fatal results. And the potential to deliberately trigger such events is at the root of the security challenge.

A further associated challenge is privacy, which believe may trump the security challenges from a regulatory perspective. This issue emerges from the fact that the software in control of driverless vehicles - much like the brains of human drivers - have a model of the vehicle they are controlling and a model of their environment.

The environment model means each vehicle collects huge quantities of data about its surroundings, something that is particularly troubling from a privacy perspective. This data includes locations of other road users and pedestrians relative to the vehicle. Although the anonymous to a driverless vehicle, the potential to infer identities and other information (particularly of other vehicles through networked capabilities) is a privacy minefield.


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