Autonomous cars – are we there yet?

autonomous cars
Image credit: Everett Collection /

Whatever the hype (and there is a ton of that) autonomous cars have hardly left the driveway.

There are many issues stalling the process, least of all the need to wait for 5G (or a mesh of 5G, 4G, WiFi, seamlessly knitted together). Until that is in place there will be little progress from the system that Tesla enjoys at the moment. Without the network coverage, you really don’t need an alert when you are relaxing in front of a movie that says ‘sorry to interrupt but could you take control for a….’ Ooops.

Two big issues are safety and security.

Safety first. Safety and autonomous cars is an ongoing issue but if you watched Top Gear recently you will have seen this (some artistic license):

Presenter, to camera: “we want to test the safety features of the new Volkswagen. It has thousands of sensors and can tell exactly what is going on around it. The literature says it can sense a person in the road while driving at 40 mph and can stop in time, every time. So, let’s test this, shall we”?

Next shot is a badly glued together collection of cardboard boxes with a smiley face.

Presenter: “I am afraid I am not brave enough to try this so I have created the perfect replica of a real person”.

Cut to shot of car driving towards boxes, driven by ‘the Stig’ (for it is he).

We wait for the moment that the car dips as it brakes. Nothing happens and the boxes are thrown into the air.

Presenter: “Hmm. Well, maybe the car’s thousand sensors didn’t stop because it wasn’t moving – after all, if it stopped every time it spotted a stationary object it would never, er, start in the first place. Let’s try moving the ‘person’.

Cut to collection of boxes haphazardly taped back together (and not looking great) with a trolley underneath. Someone off screen pulls it across the road, making it look quite like someone walking.

Cut to the car, and the Stig.

We wait for the dipping and the braking moment. Nothing happens and the boxes are thrown into the air again.

Presenter, now dressed in enormous amounts of ice hockey padding. “Well, there is only one thing left to do. Wish me luck.”

Cut to car, Stig, driving towards Presenter. Wait for the dip, the brake. Nothing. At the last moment Presenter dives out of the way.

Cut to Studio. Presenter: “well, I think we can conclude that there is a way to go before we let that on to our streets.

It was an amusing moment but with serious undercurrents.

Safety has not been adequately addressed, whatever some may say (and remember it is Google who has done a million miles of testing, not Volkswagen – clearly – or Porsche).

Even if the basic (‘stop, someone is crossing the road’) safety is water tight, an autonomous car is a connected device and connected devices are open to attack.

This means that autonomous cars will never be completely safe.

True, they will be a lot safer than mere mortals driving around but there is a lot of work needed still. It seems, in fact, that the company who has this in their sights is Deutsche Telekom who have a security operations center in Bonn looking at this. It is odd that it is a telecoms company and not a car company and perhaps this illustrates just how over relaxed about safety the industry is.

‘Deutsche Telekom is building a defence center for the car industry to provide “digital bodyguards” for drivers based on the growing realization in the industry that connected driving will not be possible without real-time cyber defense’. This according to research by Global Data.

‘Despite Deutsche Telekom’s proactive approach, the question of who takes responsibility for protecting drivers against hackers is still unanswered’.

How many companies have signed up, we do not know.

Scarily, according to a recent survey only two thirds of automotive industry executives in Asia and the US have even considered security issues.

Two thirds – so that’s OK then.

What could possibly go wrong?

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