The Driverless Future: Still a Decade Away

Michael Macauley, CEO of Quadrant Information Services, a leading supplier of pricing analytics services to property and casualty insurance carriers, says, “Engineering is no longer the holdup in getting driverless cars on the road in large numbers. As we’ve seen from announcements from companies such as Intel (1), Ford (2) and Volvo (3)—among numerous others—the technology is all but ready to go. However, society as a whole—the world in which these vehicles will have to operate—is moving more slowly, and will continue to do so until some important issues are addressed.”

One key issue, Macauley notes, is security. The heart of an autonomous vehicle is a computer system, which is connected through the Internet to a network of sensing and control systems that govern the vehicle’s speed, direction and operational functions. Computer systems—as illustrated vividly by the global ransomware attack earlier this year that disrupted hospitals, corporations and government offices in 99 countries4—are susceptible to hacking.

Charlie Miller, a former engineer at Uber, has commented that before self-driving vehicles can become a reality, the vehicles’ architects will need to consider everything from the vast array of automation in these vehicles that can be remotely hijacked to the possibility that passengers themselves could use their physical access to an unmanned vehicle to sabotage it (5).

This is not to say that the danger of hacking represents a permanent or insoluble barrier to the use of autonomous vehicles. Professor Engin Kirda, a systems, software and security expert who holds joint appointments in the College of Computer and Information Science and the College of Engineering at Boston’s Northeastern University, says, “In principle, any computerized system that has an interface to the outside world is potentially hackable.” Professor Kirda adds, however, that while rapid progress in creating complex systems is being made, good progress in systems security is also occurring, holding out the possibility for a high level of safety by 2027 or thereabouts (6).

However, when it comes to societal perception—especially of a new technology—what is important is not just what is happening now, but what could happen. Automobile-related crime, such as theft, carjacking or the use of…

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