DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – It’s no longer the stuff of science fiction: cars zipping down the highway with no driver behind the wheel.
Researchers in the Triangle are playing a key role in developing this new technology, but they point out one thing standing in the way of this becoming commonplace on the roads is the susceptibility of cars to hacking.
In recent weeks, a large white van has been catching people’s attention on Duke’s campus. It features a TV screen on the front and is part of a study to see how pedestrians interact with a driverless car.
Researcher Miles Aubert took us for a test drive. As the van approaches a crosswalk, it displays to pedestrians either its current speed or an instruction about whether to cross.
The researchers time the pedestrians’ reactions to the van as they try to understand how people will react to this emerging technology and what can happen when one day there’s no one behind the wheel to stop the car.
“Do people even look at the screen? That’s actually my fear,” said Dr. Mary Cummings, director of Duke’s Humans and Autonomy Lab.
She recently testified before Congress on the future of self-driving cars.
“People may actually adapt even more dangerous behaviors because they theoretically know what the car is thinking,” she said.
She says this technology is a long way from becoming common on the roads.
Tesla is already rolling out an early version of the technology with its autopilot feature.
But, one of Cummings’ key concerns in the quest to make this technology widespread: the ability for hackers to get access to computer systems in cars.
“GPS, for example, which is the signal that most driverless cars are heavily reliant on, is very vulnerable. My students over the weekend could develop a hacking system to get into somebody’s GPS,” she said.
Last year, Chrysler recalled more than a million cars after hackers exposed a vulnerability in a video that went viral when two men were able to stop a moving car remotely from their computer.
And recently the FBI and the National Highway Traffic Safety administration put out a warning about cybersecurity in cars.
“As technology grows, just think about the fact that at some point somebody could do something malicious to you,” said Steve Phillips, traffic safety manager at AAA.
What concerns him is how easy it is for some criminals to turn new technology against you and get into your car.
He showed us a few ways, including jamming the signal between your key fob and the car.
He noted with his car, “You see mine, you’ll hear a chirp (as the horn sounds). Most people will take that chirp off because they don’t want to hear that horn every time they close.”
But, Phillips warns against doing that because you may think you’ve locked your car when you actually haven’t thanks to the signal being jammed.
There’s also a device which amplifies your fob’s signal. Police in California posted surveillance video of people breaking into cars using it.
“With the signal relaying, I can get to your vehicle within 50 feet because I can relay that key fob. All of a sudden, it unlocks the door and i have free access to your vehicle,” said Phillips.
He encourages people to keep their fob somewhere in the house as far away from their car as possible to cut down on the risk.
He’s also concerned about apps that let you lock and unlock your car.
“If your hacker gets into this and steals this actual information, your username and your password, well now they have full function to lock your car, unlock your car and start your car,” he said.
Though the risk is real, he points out, “It’s very rare. And, you’re seeing this more in bigger cities, inner cities. You’re not really seeing this at the local level.”
But, as all these technologies quickly advance, he encourages drivers to be vigilant.
He said, “The key thing in this scenario is start asking questions in the beginning. Don’t wait towards the end.”