Data and Security, Sensors and Hardware

Are Autonomous Vehicles Really a Security Liability?

By StreetDrone,

October 12th, 2017

The question as to whether hackers could take control of Autonomous Vehicles (AVs) has always been a concern to both the public and those working in the sector.

The issue came to a head in 2015, when researchers from IT security company IOActive managed to hack into a Jeep. This meant that potentially hackers could remotely steer, apply the brakes or cut off the engine of any Jeep equipped with the company’s Uconnect system. The revelation prompted a recall of all affected models – and made the news.

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But this article in the Guardian argues that AVs are actually much less vulnerable to hacks than the cars we drive today. The reasoning behind this is that today’s (human-controlled) cars only make use of a few sensors – such as proximity sensors that stop the car if you are in danger of hitting an object or person when parking.

This means that there is just one signal coming into a car’s Can bus – and if a hacker can fake a signal or event, it can fool the car into doing something.

In comparison, AVs use multiple sensors. Radar senses mainly metal, LiDAR cannot sense glass,  and cameras can be fooled by images (although they are getting better all the time). As a result, whatever combination of sensors an AV uses, they must work together to cross-check data and build up a foolproof picture of the car’s surroundings.

A byproduct of this collaborative approach is that the sensors don’t trust each other. One sensor cannot bring the car to an emergency stop, for example, if data from the other sensors doesn’t support an analysis that this is necessary.

In turn, this means that hackers would struggle to take control of an AV. As the article says:

‘To convincingly fake all the systems at once, you can’t just feed in a few false signals: you have to model an entirely fictitious world.’

The sensors in an AV work together to establish whether something is an illusion or not – in a process that resembles the way humans do the same thing. And, reassuringly, this process is not easy for hackers to fool – which means that AVs could well be safer from cyber criminals than your current car is.

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