FARGO -- A group of North Dakota State University students is developing software to ensure that when self-driving cars tool down our roads, they will be safe from cyberattacks.
“You really want to make sure that how you protect this is thought of very early in the game,” said Jerry Straub, an assistant professor of computer science who is guiding the effort.
“This is the type of technology where you don’t want to wait for the attacker” to make his attack, he said.
Some people might see hacking the operating system of a vehicle or transportation system as a thrill or a symbol of prestige, with deadly consequences.
“If a car is hacked, you might have someone seriously injured or dying within minutes,” Straub said.
The push for autonomous vehicles is accelerating and the U.S. is expected to be a huge market, though there is much work and coordination to be done by automakers, governments and other firms.
Elon Musk, Tesla’s founder, has said fully autonomous Teslas could be ready by 2018 and gain government approval by 2021.
Volkswagen, Audi, Toyota, Honda, BMW, Chrysler, General Motors, Ford and other automakers are working on self-driving vehicles. Google is also developing autonomous vehicles.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said on Twitter he expects his firm’s fleet to be fully autonomous by 2030.
John McMillan, a sophomore from Vadnais Heights, Minn., is one of a handful of students on the NDSU software design team. Each student works on a different aspect of cybersecurity, including management of vehicles if there is an accident; identifying and dealing with emergency vehicles; control among vanets (groups of vehicles) and identifying attacks; security systems for individual cars; and security for roadside units or towers that coordinate the transit system.
The challenge is magnified by the fact that there are no fixed systems in place. But that is also the allure, McMillan said.
“To really be the first people to research into this was super appealing,” he said. “We’re defining this as we go and defining questions no one has looked at yet.”
Straub said the initiative has not required a lot of money, so it has been funded by NDSU. But as self-driving car coordination evolves, Straub hopes NDSU is positioned to receive federal funds for advanced research and real-world testing.
Freshman Abdullah Almosalami, is working on protecting vehicles when they are not connected to a network,.
Efficient traffic management, highway control and preventing accidents “require security for networks,” he said. “That’s something that definitely needs to be resolved, and hopefully, by us.”
Almosalami said he wants to see a future with self-driving cars.
“I want to see a future that’s smarter. ... Humans can make mistakes and sometimes those mistakes are real costly,” he said. “But If we have a machine that doesn’t make mistakes and handles things in a better way, we have a better world. The goal is progress.”
IHS Automotive estimates that nearly 76 million vehicles with some level of autonomy will be sold globally by 2035, with sales of 21 million autonomous vehicles in 2035 alone.
The students use computer simulations and model vehicles for testing. Over the next six or seven weeks, they’ll work to flush out problems in their system, McMillan said.
“We’re just plugging and chugging and figuring things out as we go,” he said.