Smart Cars, Smarter Roads

I was somewhat puzzled as to why, here in the U.S., there has been relatively little discussion of infrastructure enhancements needed in order to implement safe and secure autonomous vehicles. Then I read the article “Europe’s Smart Highway Will Shepherd Cars from Rotterdam to Vienna” by Philip E. Ross, posted on IEEE Spectrum on December 30, 2014 at  and it all became much clearer. According to the article, the U.S. Highway Trust Fund is practically broke and therefore doesn’t have the funds to put into place various sensors and communications systems that would allow vehicles to communicate with the highway infrastructure and therefore be much more trustworthy with respect to their security and safety.

By the way, Ross posted an earlier piece on August 20, 2014 on IEEE Spectrum with the title “Why Can’t Government Run Vehicle-to-Vehicle Communications?” at citing the same lack of funds as the reason.

I have felt for some time that safe and secure vehicle control systems and vehicle-to-vehicle communications will need a carefully constructed infrastructure that informs vehicles of road conditions, temporary disruptions (road works, accidents, dangerous weather), and communications between the infrastructure and vehicles. Yet most of the conversations about self-driving vehicles in the U.S. tend to center around on-board systems and communications with the Web.

For the first time I noticed an article about self-driving cars in which it was actually admitted that there have indeed been a number of accidents and crashes of these vehicles which try to replace the human senses but which only perceive the environment and other vehicles via video cameras, radar and other sensors. That is to say, there is no two-way communication.  In his May 16, 2015 Scientific American article “Google’s Self-Driving Cars to Hit Roads, with Steering Wheels,” which can be found at, Paul Lienert writes that “… Google disclosed that its self-driving … vehicles had been involved in 11 accidents on public roads … Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident [said project director Chris Urmson] … the cars had been hit from behind seven times, mainly at traffic lights, with a majority of the accidents being on city streets rather than on freeways.”

I must say that it is somewhat disingenuous to say that the self-driving cars didn’t cause any of the accidents. Granted it is not seen to be your fault if you are hit from behind, but, as many of us have experienced, if the car in front of you slams on its brakes unexpectedly, you, as the following vehicle, may not have much opportunity to stop in time. Be that as it may, it is apparent that it is not sufficient for self-driving cars to follow the rules of the road by themselves, they need to be more aware of what impact their actions may have on others. This supports the need for intelligent infrastructure and for ALL cars to be able to communicate with ALL the others and for a comprehensive, intelligent infrastructure.

In a column, “Car Talk: Vehicle-to vehicle communication is coming, Are we ready for it?” in the March 2015 issue of Communications of the ACM, Tom Geller differentiates among on-board sensors, such as rear-view cameras, V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure), and V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle) technologies, with the latter two referred to generically as V2X technologies. The article is an excellent overview of the various technologies needed for autonomous vehicles to operate safely, although it doesn’t point out the greatly expanded cyber attack surface that these systems open up. There is clearly a need for threat modeling for these systems both independently and when connected to one another.

Aaron M. Kessler’s article “Hands-Free Cars Take Wheel, And Law Isn’t Stopping Them,” on the front page of The New York Times of May 3, 2015, describes how lawmakers and regulators are trying to catch up with the technology with minimal success.

Again we see the rush to bring these autonomous vehicle technologies to market without much-needed laws and regulations. Nor is attention being paid to securing these systems against cyber attacks. This is yet another example of looking to bolt on security and safety, after systems have already been deployed, at much greater expense and with much greater risk of successful cyber attacks, malfunctions and failures in the interim.

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