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Could a driverless car be used as a ‘lethal weapon’?

While most of the world bangs on about how amazing autonomous cars will be, some of us are concerned. That includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation (aka the FBI), which has said a self-driving car could be used as a ‘lethal weapon’ ─ and no we’re not talking about the film series.

An unclassified report by the FBI and obtained by the Guardian newspaper has said autonomous cars “will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car”.

One example outlined in a section called Multitasking involves a suspect shooting at law enforcement while the car does the driving. Another sees terrorists turning self-driving cars into bombs that can get to the desired target with little human intervention and from a remote location.

The FBI also fears criminals could also override the safety systems a driverless car requires to keep the occupants safe, leading to an accident.

“Autonomy… will make mobility more efficient, but will also open up greater possibilities for dual-use applications and ways for a car to be more of a potential lethal weapon that it is today,” agents of the Strategic Issues Group of the Directorate of Intelligence explained.

Hacking computer systems is hardly new and the task will become easier as increasingly clever cars rely on being connected to the internet at all times. This goes against common understanding that taking out human intervention and their ability to make mistakes will make roads safer.

While drivers can make mistakes, so do computer systems. You need only experience the dreaded Windows ‘Blue Screen of Death’ to know nothing is ever 100 per cent stable. The question is how damaging would a momentary loss of GPS tracking or a computing glitch be at 70mph?

There is a positive side to all of this. Cars that are aware of where they are at all times will therefore be easier to track and it’s entirely possible the FBI could lock out a driver in the event of a chase, saving the need to put other motorists at risk. Hell, why not press a button to remotely lock the doors to keep the suspect inside until the police show up?

The report continued: “Surveillance will be made more effective and easier, with less of a chance that a patrol car will lose sight of a target vehicle.

“In addition, algorithms can control the distance that the patrol car is behind the target to avoid detection or intentionally have a patrol car make opposite turns at intersections, yet successfully meet up at later points with the target.”

The FBI believes autonomous vehicles will be granted access to public roads by Congress within the next five to seven years. Plenty of time for clever people in white coats to come up with clever security systems (and for clever criminals to undo them).

A recent competition challenged hackers to try and remotely access the system of a Tesla Model S for a prize of US$10,000.

Google recently unveiled its interpretation of a driverless car. The official prototype does away with break pedals, steering wheel and is limited to 25mph.

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