Automobile Drivers in For Another Federal Regulation that May Kill Them

U.S. regulators are crafting a rule that would require all new vehicles to be able to “talk” to one another using wireless technology, which the Department of Transportation said would significantly reduce accidents on U.S. roads and alleviate traffic congestion. It is also likely to introduce serious problems, as hackers and terrorists now have another target — cars with passengers driving 80 MPH down the highway.

A proposed rule mandating so-called vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology should be put in place before President Barack Obama leaves office in early 2017, DOT officials said on Monday.

“When these technologies are adapted across the fleet, the results could be nothing short of revolutionary for roadway safety,” said David Friedman, acting administrator of the DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

What David seems to be ignoring is the very real possibility of malicious hackers doing precisely what they’re doing right now with our computers. Malicious hackers install Ransom-ware on computers, encrypting their contents, and then charging the computer’s owner if they want everything back. What about taking over a car driving down the highway and demanding thousands of dollars of its occupants to not crash the car?  We’re not far away from that scenario.

Our cars already have multiple networks of computers in them that are used to do everything from regulate fuel consumption through actually steering, accelerating and braking. What will happen when these computer networks are exposed to other vehicles driving down the highway?  Don’t think it can happen:

  1. Car hacking code released at Defcon
  2. Hackers find weaknesses in car computer systems
  3. How hackers and car makers are battling for control of your car

Airbags Are a Great Analog

Airbags research and deployment had started in the 1970’s.  The US Federal Government ultimately decided that every vehicle had to have a supplemental restraint system, and many manufacturers opted for installing airbags into all of their fleets.

In 1990, the first automotive fatality attributed to an airbag was reported. TRW produced the first gas-inflated airbag in 1994, with sensors and low-inflation-force bags becoming common soon afterwards. Dual-depth (also known as dual-stage) airbags appeared on passenger cars in 1998. By 2005, deaths related to airbags had declined, with no adult deaths and two child deaths attributed to airbags that year. Injuries remain fairly common in accidents with an airbag deployment.

Serious injuries are less common, but severe or fatal injuries can occur to vehicle occupants very near an airbag or in direct contact when it deploys. Such injuries may be sustained by unconscious drivers slumped over the steering wheel, unrestrained or improperly restrained occupants who slide forward in the seat during pre-crash braking, and properly belted drivers sitting very close to the steering wheel. A good reason for the driver not to cross hands on the steering wheel, a rule taught to most learner drivers but quickly forgotten by most, is that an airbag deployment while negotiating a turn may result in the driver’s hand(s) being driven forcefully into his or her face, exacerbating any injuries from the airbag alone.

It took more than three decades before improvements in sensing and gas generator technology have allowed the development of third generation airbag systems that can adjust their deployment parameters to size, weight, position and restraint status of the occupant. These improvements have demonstrated a reduced injury risk factor for small adults and children who had an increased risk of injury with first generation airbag systems.

How many decades will it take before the Federal Government’s regulations regarding mesh-connected cars will catch up to the technology’s ability? If airbags are any example, there will be far too many deaths that would otherwise have been avoided.