14 October 2020

The long road ahead for self-driving cars

The Back Page

The drive to create a reliable and safe self-driving car can resemble the alchemists’ medieval quest to transform lead into gold: a diverting but fruitless endeavour.

The pursuit of this automotive holy grail seemingly combines a misguided, quasi-religious faith in the infallibility of technology with a touchingly naïve trust in the goodness of human nature.

Take, for example, this recent report from the techie bible, Wired, which describes how researchers have discovered a really cool way to trick self-driving cars into randomly slamming on their brakes for no apparent reason. Nice!  

How so? By hacking into those digital billboards you see along the roadside and injecting in an image of a stop sign.

“The attacker just shines an image of something on the road or injects a few frames into a digital billboard, and the car will apply the brakes or possibly swerve, and that’s dangerous,” a researcher from Israel’s Ben Gurion University told Wired. “The driver won’t even notice at all. So somebody’s car will just react, and they won’t understand why.”

The Israeli research team found hackers would only need to insert the “stop” image for a fraction of a second for the car to react and that such a hack would require very little in the way of sophisticated hardware to achieve and leave no trace of evidence.

Such attacks could be done “purely remotely, and they do not require any special expertise”, the researchers said.

Of course, this revelation does beg the question of why the Israelis were looking into how to cause self-driving automotive mischief in the first place, but we suspect that is a whole other story.

In the meantime, our future careers as Uber drivers seem secure for a few more years yet.

If you see something stupid, say something stupid … send directions to [email protected].

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