Security Implications of Self-Driving Vehicles

A car that can drive itself to its destination more safely than a human driver.  A car that can drop you off at the door and then go park itself, only to be summoned back to meet you at the door again when you are ready to leave.  A truck that can find it’s way through a crowded city and back right up to the loading dock at its destination, without any driver on board.  Sounds awesome, doesn’t it?

Google and a host of other companies are determined to make it happen.  The Economist and a lot of pundits are convinced it will be one of the biggest innovations in modern life, transforming the way we get around and the way we live and work.

But will it also create irresistible temptations for terrorists and a terrifying security problem?

To understand the potential nightmare, think what the world would be like if terrorists had routine, inexpensive access to precision cruise missiles.  Flying low, hugging the terrain below radar, and able to deliver a large payload to any spot with an accuracy of a few meters.

Because that’s what every self-guided car or truck becomes if you add a few hundred pounds of high explosive and a GPS-based detonator.  It becomes a cruise missile on wheels.  Or, if you prefer, a suicide bomber you can rent by the day.

If I were a terrorist, I’d be following every move by Google and the various car companies, and I’d be cheering every decision by regulators and law-makers to clear away obstacles.  Because making bombs is easy, compared with delivering them to a target without being intercepted.

What’s more, the delivery problem goes up exponentially with the size of the bomb.  Rigging a few ounces of explosive in a letter bomb is relatively simple.  A few pounds in, say, a shoe or a toner cartridge, is harder.  Getting someone to drive an entire car or truck full of explosives to a target and blow it up is much harder still.

Ever since a truck bomb destroyed the Marine Barracks in Lebanon, this has been a terrorist’s dream.  Timothy McVeigh managed it when he blew up a truck full of cheap ammonia fertilizer and fuel oil and destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  The attacks on 9/11 were an aerial version of the same thing.  We can’t absolutely prevent this sort of thing, but we need to think twice about making it ridiculously easy for the bad guys.

Once self-driving vehicles are commonplace, I don’t know how we can defend against that threat.  I really hope that there are some very smart people already thinking about it, though, and that they come up with some answers before we drive blindly down that road.


2 thoughts on “Security Implications of Self-Driving Vehicles

  1. Actually, it would be far more difficult for a terrorist to deliver explosives via self driving vehicle. If the car is smart enough to safely transport you from one end of the country to another while you sleep, the car is smart enough to know it is full of hundreds of pounds of explosive material.

    And let’s say you found a way to cloak your explosives, there would still be tremendous amounts of electronic data linking you and your terrorist organization to the car.

    • > “the car is smart enough to know it is full of hundreds of pounds of explosive material”

      Really? How? Just by magic?

      If no one is thinking about this kind of threat or planning ahead to defeat it, then how, exactly, is the car or truck supposed to “know” that? Will all vehicles come with chemical sensors and cargo inspection systems?

      That seems extremely unlikely. Even if they did, such sensors can be defeated quite easily by completely sealing the package of explosives before loading it into the vehicle.

      Fill a large container with fertilizer and fuel oil. Add a nameless “burner” cellphone rigged to ignite the mix. Seal the container and wash off all traces of chemicals. Load it into a rented U-Haul and send it on its way. Instant replay of the Oklahoma City bombing.

      As of now, there are NO plans that I know of to design self-driving vehicles to inspect their own interiors or to somehow magically “know” what is in the cargo area. That’s precisely the problem.

      > “there would still be tremendous amounts of electronic data linking you and your terrorist organization to the car”

      Unlikely, at least if you took reasonable precautions. But even if that were true, a terrorist could prep dozens of trucks, send them all on their way, and then leave the country, triggering the explosions with timers or a series of phone calls.

      This is not a danger that should be dismissed lightly!

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