You Read It Here First: The Biggest Challenge to Autonomous Vehicles Is All Too Human

A bit more than six years ago, I wrote “The Blockers” for this site as a work of fiction, suggesting that there may be a bit of a popular revolt against self-driving vehicles and that it might be led by those who felt personally dehumanized as a consequence of “progress.”

Now, the nice people at MIT Technology Review have caught up to your humble author’s dystopian point of view.

“Out-of-work truckers armed with ‘adversarial machine learning’ could dazzle autonomous vehicles into crashing.” So says the improbably named Simson Garfunkel in for MIT.

I don’t know anything about Mr. Garfinkel other than the almost certain fact that his parents know all the verses of “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” but he makes some very strong points about authentication and security almost always being afterthoughts in any sufficiently complex system. This is particularly true in the automotive space, where the priority has always been ensuring that the local dealer can quickly and easily service the vehicle rather than assuring that said vehicle is at least as secure as, say, a modern Android phone.

Those automated taxis or delivery vehicles could be vulnerable to being maliciously dazzled with a high-power laser pointer by an out-of-work Teamster, a former Uber driver who still has car payments to make, or just a pack of bored teenagers.

A pack of bored teenagers. Where have I heard that before… oh yeah, I wrote it. Like most great ideas, however, my little bit of fiction was far from original. I was front and center on IRC for dozens of bored-teenager attacks on everything from political websites to the Mt. Gox electronic-currency exchange. Never underestimate the ability of a bright kid with a lot of time on his hands to crack your precious little system like an egg.

When I wrote “The Blockers,” some of the B&B suggested that attacks on autonomous vehicles would be no more common than attacks on human-operated vehicles. They’re wrong and I’ll tell you why: the ethics of the situation aren’t the same. There might be a full-time campaign in the Western media to turn lower-class, blue-collar truckers and whatnot into “racist” unpersons, but most reasonable folks can see right through to the fact that the differences between a truck driver and a Brooklyn hipster are outweighed by their human similarities. There is a word for people who would deliberately endanger a trucker at work just for the fun of it, and that word is psychopath.

An autonomous truck carrying a load of imported clothing from Seattle to Peoria? That’s another matter entirely. That’s somewhere between vandalism (if you disapprove) and economic justice (if that sort of thing floats your boat). What’s the worst thing that could happen if somebody disabled every autonomous truck coming out of the West Coast ports? The sweatshops are gonna close? You might be surprised at the degree of approval overlap between the camouflage-shirt crowd and the Black Bloc here. Don’t forget that the so-called Occupy crowd got the authentic hammer dropped on them six years ago because they blocked the ports. No doubt some of them have already made the calculation that the Interstate Highway System is far more vulnerable than any shipping port.

If you ask me, the spirit of Ned Ludd is alive and well among today’s politically active generation. It wouldn’t take much to bring it to the forefront. We’re not talking about it much right now because autonomous trucks are still the stuff of hyperactive press releases and clinical discussions in the MIT Technology Journal. When the rubber meets the road, however, something real is going to happen. Depend on it.

[Image: raymondclarkeimages/Flickr]


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