Unexpectedly Intriguing!
April 13, 2017

Self driving cars are getting a lot of attention these days, but are they really solving the kind of problems that drivers care most about?

Consider the following commercial that proposes the kind of solution hat many drivers would love to have today, but where we're happy to report that the technology behind today's autonomous vehicles fortunately isn't anywhere close to providing. The first features a science fiction solution to the problem of how to deal with that slower moving vehicle in front of you.

Being able to take control of the slower-moving vehicle in front of you seems like a cool thing, right? But since the car being moved over to the slow lane is clearly the one with the self-driving capability, if that's your car, how would you feel about having control of your vehicle taken from you without your permission and manipulated by other drivers on the highway? Or for that matter, by teenage hackers hanging out in their basement lair?

Or how about by cyberintelligence agents employed by a national government or a terrorist organization? That's something that has been alleged to have already happened.

In 2010, Professor Tadayoshi Kohno of the University of Washington and Professor Stefan Savage of the University of California, San Diego published a paper entitled “Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile” which outlined the possibility that cars could be hacked. They pointed out that, once hacked, cars could be remotely controlled to produce sudden braking, brake failure or sudden acceleration. Later, at the Def Con conference in August, 2013, well-known hacker and security engineer for Twitter, Charlie Miller, demonstrated how a car’s steering could also be remotely controlled and that it wouldn’t take that much know-how. That led to some to conclude that there may have been a connection between car hacking and the death of journalist Michael Hastings two months earlier.

Michael Hastings was an award winning, though controversial, journalist. It was he who exposed the negative attitudes of the military, and especially General Stanley McChrystal, towards government officials. Hastings became more interested in government surveillance and his last story was called, “Why Democrats Love to Spy On Americans”. Just before his death, he told friends he thought he was being investigated by the FBI and worried that his car was being tampered with. At the time, he was preparing an article on CIA director John Brennan. He claimed to friends that he was working on a big story. But before this story could appear, he died in a fiery car crash.

The subsequent investigation into Hastings' death in the 2013 crash still poses more questions than have been provided definitive answers. Wikileaks' release of documents related to the CIA's cyber intelligence operations earlier this year has rekindled interest in the case, where the potential capability of hackers to seize control of modern automobiles is feeding both fears among conspiracy theorists and more importantly, ethical concerns based on the hypothetical potential of that situation among more serious people.

We think that the latter, along with the risk of exposure to the liability for having knowingly producing vehicles capable of being hacked in this fashion, will influence the development of the coding and technology of self-driving vehicles to ensure that the potential likelihood for their being taken over by people with hostile intentions lies somewhere between minimal and non-existent.

If we have learned anything from decades of science fiction, it is that modern engineering is as much about ethics as it is about producing the wonders of tomorrow. The challenge of developing self-driving cars is providing the latest proof of that contention.

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