UCC researcher can hack into self-driving cars – report

7 Sep 2015

A research fellow at University College of Cork has discovered a way to hack into self-driving cars, confusing them into thinking there are pedestrians, cars and even walls in their way.

Jonathan Petit, who is also the principal scientist at Security Innovation, is to present his report at a conference in November, where he will reveal how he compromised a system that, we’re told, will be widespread by the end of the decade.

Most autonomous car projects are based off lidar systems, but, for the cost of a ticket to a football game, Petit compromised it.

Future Human

By taking “echoes” of a fake car, Petit claims he can put them in any location he wants, tricking cars into thinking there is something straight ahead which provokes evasive action, or even overwhelming the vehicle, rendering it stationary.

Hacking cars with lasers

Petit’s work, in which he partnered with Steven Shladover from University of California, is as basic as a laser pointer partnered with an “off the shelf” product like Raspberry Pi.

If hacking these systems is as easy as claimed, the problem is two-fold. First, your car is compromised and untrustworthy. Second, the odds are you have already switched off your driving brain, meaning you may not be able to counter this manually.

According to SAE, the duo refer to an as yet unpublished piece of research that shows a large level of disengagement by drivers of autonomous vehicles.

A simple process

Petit started by recording different pulses in commercial lidar units. As they were not encrypted, he could access them and play them back as and when he wanted.

“The only tricky part was to be synchronised, to fire the signal back at the lidar at the right time,” he said to IEEA. “Then the lidar thought that there was clearly an object there.”

There are ways to fix this, though, with Petit claiming a “strong system that does misbehaviour detection” would be a good place to start.

“But I don’t think carmakers have done it yet. This might be a good wake-up call for them.”

A growing threat

Car manufacturers are fighting to stay ahead of the technology they are engaging in, as hacking threats emerge with every advancement.

Last week in the US, Chrysler announced it would recall 7,810 cars to update software for radios to prevent hacking.

The call came only weeks after the same manufacturer recalled 1.4m vehicles in the US for a software update, again after hacking fears.

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic