Autonomous Vehicles: Are We Ready for the World of Tomorrow?

volvo_road_train-660By Eric Siebert

Autonomous vehicles—that is, cars that can operate themselves with little to no human interaction— once existed only in the world of science fiction. But they may soon be making an appearance on America’s roads. Manufacturers such as Google, pursuant to enacted legislation, are now allowed to test autonomous vehicles on the roads of Nevada, California and Florida. Many other states have similar pending or proposed legislation.

Public use of autonomous vehicles may have many benefits, from safer and more efficient driving to increased mobility for those that would otherwise be unable to operate a vehicle. However, the autonomous vehicle’s electronic nature and need to constantly connect with its surroundings suggest privacy and security concerns that are not immediately obvious.

Autonomous vehicles operate through a series of electronic equipment and sensors, using lasers, radar, and GPS systems to detect and respond to the vehicle’s surroundings. To operate and navigate the vehicle, these sensors constantly send and receive information to interpret those surroundings, identifying the precise location of the vehicle is at all times. While this is a necessary component of the vehicle’s operation, it also presents a potentially valuable tool for third parties such as the police to use for purposes including criminal investigation.

On that front, the United States Supreme Court recently held that the police’s tracking of a vehicle’s location via GPS constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment.

At least one academic has discussed privacy concerns regarding the possibility for third parties to track an individual’s movement. Particularly at risk is personal autonomy (knowledge and control over where one travels), personal information (what information is collected about an individual and how it is used), and awareness of surveillance (knowledge that the government or a third party may be able to know one’s whereabouts at all times). Driverless vehicles may thus challenge the belief that actions within a personal vehicle are private, and violate the rudimentary “right to be let alone.”

Not only is privacy potentially threatened by autonomous vehicle technology, but the security of the vehicles may be at heightened risk. Researchers have shown that a vehicle’s electronic control unit can be hacked through simply a vehicle’s wireless tire pressure monitor, allowing a hacker to put the vehicle occupant in danger by as much as disabling the vehicle’s brakes. An autonomous vehicle may even be hacked remotely via short or long range wireless access, creating a risk of a long range external attack and suggesting a concern not implicated in less sophisticated vehicles.

Due to the rapid advance of the technology of autonomous vehicles, there is much uncertainty surrounding implementation into the public sphere. While federal guidance would be helpful, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been hesitant to act, claiming a need for “further research” before enacting any concrete regulatory provisions.

Ultimately, the federal government has deemed it better to leave most regulation in this sphere to the states, maintaining that it is still too early to specifically regulate safety requirements.

The new and deeply interconnected technology involved in autonomous vehicle operation combined with the federal government’s hesitation to act makes the roll-out of autonomous vehicles into the public sphere a risky proposition. Although offering potential consumer benefits, autonomous vehicles also present numerous concerns that need to first be addressed.

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