Is there really a risk that driverless cars can be hacked?

As we move closer and closer to a future where driverless cars are normal, we take a look at whether we should fear the hackers taking over our cars.

If popular culture as taught us anything, it has shown that advanced robotics should be respected. Films like Minority Report and iRobot show just how far technology can take driverless cars – a sprawling utopia swarming with autonomous vehicles, safely transporting people across the tech highway.

But fears that this future of autonomous cars is open to hackable exploits has continued to circle as we inch closer and closer to this reality.

A survey of over 2,000 people commissioned by B2B marketplace Expert Market finds that an overwhelming majority (85 per cent) of people are concerned about driverless technology because of the fear that it could easily be hacked or interfered with.

The survey, carried out by independent survey company Vivatic, asked participants across the UK how they felt about the advancement of driverless car technology and the impact they believe it will have upon society; tackling everything from how much they trust the technology to which loved ones they would be happy to send off in an unmanned cab.

Alarmingly, the results reveal that the majority of people wouldn’t trust a driverless car with their pets (only 20 per cent would), but they would be happy to send their best friend (43 per cent would) or spouse (30 per cent) in a driverless cab – despite their concerns about hacking and safety.

Half (54 per cent) of people said they see the use of driverless car technology to transport food, goods and people as a leap forward and would welcome this advancement.

Key findings

Two fifths (43 per cent) would trust self driving cars with their best friend and 30 per cent with their spouse but only 9 per cent would allow their children under the age of 18 in a self-driving car

The main fear of the public is that the car or steering system might malfunction and fail, 58 per cent of respondents were concerned about this

The next most prevalent fear, chosen by 53 per cent of participants was that driverless cars could be easily intercepted and their cargo stolen

Half (50 per cent) of participants believe we should be concentrating on making drivers safer, not just cars

John Goggin, CEO of leading logistics company Movolytics, says, “In the race to be the first to get driverless cars on the road, it seems these companies have failed to build up consumer trust in the technology. Getting buy-in from the public will be an essential part of making a success of driverless cars, so they will have to remedy this in order to get the global reach they are looking for.”

The race may be well underway but car manufacturers haven’t consulted the public as to whether they will trust the technology enough to feel safe.

So can driverless cars be hacked?

Examples can be found that, under the right circumstances, hacking a driverless car can be pretty easy. Famously, Andy Greenberg from Wired lost control of his Jeep to hackers whilst on a highway, showing that there is a very real danger that hackers can exploit vehicles remotely for nefarious purposes.

This example may have to be taken with a grain of salt, solely based on the fact that new technology is always open to exploitation. Car manufacturers are in the business to make money, but they also want to look after their customers, so it is safe to think that efforts will be made to defend driverless cars from hackers in all vehicles.

This escapade would be extremely difficult for a hacker to pull off in the real world and the opportunity to exploit weaknesses in code will become harder and harder as the technology advances.

To make sure that consumers are willing to swallow the pill of not being in control of a speeding vehicle, safety and security is the paramount concern for regulators and manufacturers.

Craig Smith, founder of Open Garages, believes that even if a hacker did manage to work their way into a driverless car, the things for them to do would be slim. “An attacker has two options when on a network of a driverless car: fake all the sensors simultaneously in a way that can’t be detected, or take over the core decision making [central processing unit].”

The former is nearly impossible to achieve given that coders have made steps to protect this aspect, so a hacker would have to focus on the latter, which gives security engineers a clearer model of what they’d want to protect.

“In a self-driving vehicle you have more ways an attacker can get ‘in’ to a vehicle, but since the network isn’t trusted, being ‘in,’ doesn’t get you much,” Smith says.

The future is not to far away, with companies like Google looking to ride the crest of the wave and capitalise on autonomous vehicles. Only time will tell whether driverless cars will remain immune to the attempts of hackers, or will be the big threat to human life.

Owen Gough

Owen Gough

Owen Gough is a reporter for He has a background in small business marketing strategies and is responsible for writing content on subjects ranging from small business finance to technology...

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