Self-driving transportation might be on its way to your city or town. Earlier this month, a fleet of robo taxis were deployed in a small area of Shanghai, and last month, Alphabet subsidiary Waymo released a series of self-driving cars in San Francisco. Although tech giants are the primary backers of robo taxis and similar initiatives, other businesses, like Walmart, are also developing autonomous vehicle programs. 

By 2023 the global robo taxi market is expected to reach a valuation of 1.03 billion. The number is expected to grow to 38.61 billion by 2030. But the question remains, are robo taxis safe enough to scale? 

Safety: Self-driving cars, robo taxis, AI taxis

In the early 20th century, aviation itself developed more quickly than aviation safety precautions. Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) contend that the self-driving car landscape retains development parallels to that of the aeronautics sector. At present, the Self Drive Act provides federal safety guidelines to support self-driving vehicle operators in the US. 

While self-driving cars currently have a higher rate of accidents than human-operated vehicles, experts -including those with the United States Department of Transportation–  contend that self-driving vehicles can ultimately reduce the frequency of crashes and injuries. Ninety-four percent of serious collisions occur due to human error. Robo taxis, AI taxis and other automated vehicles could yield lifesaving benefits. 

Driverless cars and hacking

Earlier this year, the European Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) and the Joint Research Center (JRC) published a report describing the risks associated with autonomous vehicles. The report advocates for organizations to investigate the vulnerabilities inherent in connected vehicle technologies. Moreover, authors indicate that autonomous vehicles are susceptible to malicious machine learning-based attacks, including “evasion” or “poisoning”. These types of attacks can create false information, which erroneously lead sensors to evade something fictitious. Alternatively, the attacks can manipulate the artificial intelligence training data, causing the cars to “learn” the wrong information.  

Private cyber security research institutions and university-based research groups continue to explore how else hacks could happen. Their insights will inform industry best practices and standards regarding cyber security for connected vehicles. 

Check Point expert security insights

“Although there are many useful and exciting applications for self driving vehicles, they pose a lot of security risks. Any software has the potential for bugs and security vulnerabilities that can be exploited. This risk increases with the level of connectivity to the outside world – whether that’s certain networks, sensors, IoT devices, or other vehicles,” says Check Point security expert Maya Levine.

In addition, “The risk of a cyber attack on these autonomous vehicles has the potential for truly devastating consequences, the worst of which is loss of lives due to collisions. Other consequences could be ransomware that locks an owner out of their vehicle, or a hack on the vehicle’s operating system that exposes personal information on other connected devices,” Levine continued. 

Road ready in the Europe, UK and Japan

Starting in January of 2021, the Europe, the UK and Japan began to allow automated vehicles to retain separate lanes on highways. Drivers would not have to actively operate vehicles provided that certain conditions are met. These include:

  • Continuous vehicle speed under 60kph (37mph)
  • Operation on roadways free of pedestrians
  • Vehicles must offer drivers a 10 second warning to re-engage

A system of shared roads may exist for a long time into the future. Ultimately, some officials and experts anticipate a fully automated transportation system. 

In summary

Robo taxis and driverless vehicles are going mainstream. People are paying for rides. The big question remains: How to ensure physical and cyber safety? For more insights into the self-driving car market, see Cyber Talk’s past coverage. To receive the latest tech news, security insights and cutting-edge analysis delivered straight to your inbox each week, sign up for the Cyber Talk newsletter here