Stickers on street signs can confuse self-driving cars, researchers show

street signs
Engineers developing autonomous cars certainly have their work cut out as they try to perfect the technology to make the safest vehicles possible, but it’s often the unexpected issues that pop up along the way that can leave them scratching their heads.

A few months ago, for example, it was revealed that bird poop had been causing havoc with the sensors on autonomous cars, with a direct hit obscuring their ability to “see,” making the vehicle about as safe as a human driver tootling along with their eyes closed. While Waymo has overcome the poop problem with the development of tiny water squirters and wipers that spring into action the moment the gloop hits the sensor, another issue has just reared its ugly head that clearly requires urgent attention if we’re ever to see self-driving technology rolled out in a meaningful way.

Interested in testing the all-important sensors that help a car to make sense of its surroundings and make decisions at speed, security researchers at the University of Washington recently tampered with a street sign — under lab conditions, of course — to see if it would confuse the technology.

It did.

The researchers said that by printing off some stickers and attaching them in a particular way to different street signs, the alterations were able to confuse cameras that are used by “most” autonomous vehicles, Car and Driver reported.

Rather worryingly, the team managed to confuse a self-driving car into thinking a regular “stop” sign was a 45-mph speed limit sign, simply by adding a few carefully placed stickers to it (pictured).self driving cars confuse stickers signs stop sign

The sign alterations can be very small and go unnoticed by humans because the camera’s software is using an algorithm to understand the image, and interprets it in a profoundly different way to how a human does. So the sign used in the test clearly continues to show the word “stop,” despite the addition of the graffiti-like stickers that serve to trick the car into thinking it means something else.

The researchers suggest that if hackers are able to access the algorithm, they could use an image of the road sign to create a customized, slightly altered version capable of confusing the car’s camera.

The implications of such confusion aren’t hard to imagine. A self-driving car speeding through a stop sign that it mistook for a speed limit sign could put it in the path of an oncoming vehicle, though in such a scenario the self-driving tech in both cars should prevent a catastrophic collision. So, in such cases, tampering with street signs has the potential to cause huge amounts of chaos on the roads rather than anything more serious.

But what happens if the entire sign is fake having been put up by pranksters — something that does happen  from time to time. How will the driverless car be able to tell the difference between a fake sign and a genuine one? While the car’s mapping technology will add to its knowledge of its immediate surroundings, information on temporary signs for construction or incidents may have to be transmitted to driverless cars ahead of time to avoid issues. The technology could also take into account contextual information, prompting it to ignore, say, a (fake) 80 mph sign in a residential area.


Tesla will have ‘autonomous robotaxis’ in 2020, Elon Musk says

Tesla will deploy self-driving cars in a "robotaxi" service in 2020, CEO Elon Musk said at the automaker's Autonomy Investor Day. Musk has promised autonomous Tesla electric cars before, but will he finally deliver this time?

Apple’s interest in self-driving cars reported to be revving up

A new report suggests that Apple is in talks with a number of suppliers to purchase lidar sensors, an essential tool for self-driving cars. The news is once again spiking rumors that Apple might be building vehicles.

From rugged wagons to hot sports cars, the 2019 NY Auto Show brought it all

From city cars to supercars, anything goes at the New York Auto Show. Automakers from all over the globe traveled to the 2019 show to unveil their newest concept cars and production models.

Qiantu K50 is a Chinese electric sports car that’s coming to the U.S.

The Qiantu K50 is a Chinese electric sports car that will be marketed in the United States by California-based Mullen Technologies. The carbon-fiber bodied, 402-horsepower K50 is expected to go on sale in 2020.

Bored with stock? The best tuner cars are begging to be modified

Modification has been around almost as long as the automobile itself. Here are 25 of the best tuner cars you can find, ranging from American muscle standouts to Japanese drift cars.

21 charged in Chicago carsharing heist; 100+ cars stolen, many still missing

More than 100 Mercedes-Benz vehicles belonging to carsharing service Car2Go were stolen in Chicago. Police are still working to recover all of the cars, which are equipped with GPS, and 21 people have been charged.
Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robots that eat landmines and clean your floors

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!

The VR goggles you wear to shoot alien ships is helping Magna design car parts

Canadian automotive supplier Magna has started using virtual reality in its research and development department. The technology helps engineers get a better view of what they're working on, whether it's an interior part or a powertrain.

Toyota leads $1 billion investment in Uber’s self-driving tech division

In a move that has been a long time coming, Uber filed its S-1 documents, which sets the stage for the company to finally go public with an initial public offering. The company could be valued at more than $100 billion.
Digital Trends Live

Digital Trends Live: Samsung Galaxy Fold woes, zombie pigs, and more

Today's topics: Samsung Galaxy Fold, Facebook A.I. voice assistants, YouTube comes to Fire TV, facial recognition on airline flights, the SpaceX DART program, Yale's zombie pigs, and much more!

Electric car buying guide: What you need to know before you buy

EVs are better than they've ever been, but buying your first battery-powered car can be an intimidating experience. Digital Trends has compiled a comprehensive guide that walks you through the process of buying an EV.

Carbuying can be tiring: Here are the best used car websites to make it easier

Shopping for a used car isn't easy, especially when the salesman is looking to make a quick sale. Thankfully, there are plenty of sites aimed at the prospective buyer, whether you're looking for a sedan or a newfangled hybrid.

Café racer-inspired ebike hits 28 mph quickly and quietly with carbon belt drive

Ebike manufacturer Electra launched the Café Moto Go, an advanced ebike. The Café Moto Go's step-over frame was inspired by café racers. The Café Moto Go is a premium performance ebike built to run smoothly and extra quietly.

Where to go when your EV is low: Rich neighborhoods have most charging stations

If you're running low on juice in your electric vehicle, head for the rich part of town. A survey by found median home list prices in the 20 U.S. ZIP codes with the most EV charging stations were 2.6 times the national average.