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Are You Scared Your Future Self-Driving Car Will Get Hacked?

Americans are pretty concerned about autonomous vehicles cybersecurity–both for safety and privacy reasons.

Are You Scared Your Future Self-Driving Car Will Get Hacked?
[Photo: Angelo Merendino/AFP/Getty Images]

There are plenty of reasons to be a bit hesitant about the impending autonomous-car takeover: Engineers are still ironing out the kinks in how these vehicles understand and respond to their environment–pedestrians in particular–and there’s the fact that we, as humans, will have to set aside our control-freak tendencies. Cybersecurity is also a concern: Self-driving cars are, necessarily, data mines. But according to a new study from the University of Michigan, Americans aren’t just afraid of their self-driving cars being hacked–some are also concerned that their human-piloted cars will be compromised.

The new study, carried out by the University of Michigan’s sustainable transport director Michael Sivak, asked 519 respondents over the age of 18 about cyber-security concerns related to their vehicles. The questions examined attitudes about three types of vehicles: conventional cars, self-driving vehicles with human controls, and self-driving cars without controls.

Many of the fears were what you might expect. For example, more people are worried about self-driving cars being hacked than they are about regular cars being hacked. When asked about “hacking personally-owned vehicles to gain access to data on personal travel patterns,” for example, almost three times the number of respondents (21.6% vs. 9.8%) were worried about autonomous cars without controls than they were about conventional cars. Perhaps understandably, people are more scared of car hacking when the autonomous car has no manual controls inside for them to wrest back control from an attacker.

[Photo: Flickr user Ed and Eddie]

What the survey really illuminates is that people’s fear tends to increase in proportion to how little control drivers would have, even when that doesn’t exactly make sense. Consider the issue of the data you generate while using the internet as your self-driving car pilots you to your destination. Banking, online shopping, Facebooking: All of these generate valuable data, and can be undertaken safely in an autonomous vehicle. But when asked about their concerns over “hacking personally-owned vehicles to gain access to personal information not related to travel,” 21% of people were “extremely concerned about it in an AV without driving controls, versus just 13% in an AV with manual controls, which isn’t exactly logical–both cars would collect the same data, and the presence of manual controls won’t give the drivers the ability to reclaim data from hackers.

More practically, though, concerns about vehicle safety also increase as driver control diminishes. When asked about the effects of “hacking or disabling the main traffic-management system,” “hacking or disabling many vehicles simultaneously,” or “hacking personally owned vehicles by terrorists to use as a weapon,” fears increased significantly depending on how little control drivers would have. In all these cases, around 10% were extremely concerned when asked about regular cars, rising to around 30% for self-driving vehicles without controls.

The report breaks down the findings by gender and age. In general, women are more concerned with cyber-security issues than men, although not by much in most cases. Exceptions include “hacking many conventional vehicles simultaneously,” where 15.2% of women worried about their conventional cars being compromised, versus 7.2% of men. Despite the chatter that millennials are more adaptable to new technology, younger people were only slightly less concerned with cyber-security issues than older respondents.

One final part of the survey departs from cyber security and addresses regular road safety. What is the minimum age, asked the authors, at which people should be allowed to “drive” an autonomous vehicle? Most respondents said 17, with the highest proportion of respondents (around 50%) picking this option. Oddly, while only 4% of respondents thought that 15-year-olds should be left in charge of a self-driving car, 22.5% said that kids aged 14 or under should be allowed to operate an autonomous vehicle.

The fluctuations in opinions on just this one issue serve to remind us of an important fact: Few of these people surveyed actually own or have even been in an autonomous car, so much of this is hypothetical. People tend to fear what they don’t know. When AVs hit the roads in large numbers, and people ride in them regularly, these concerns will–rightly or wrongly–probably decrease quite a bit, hopefully along with traffic deaths caused by human drivers.

About the author

Previously found writing at Wired.com, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.

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