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In the future, hackers could cause traffic chaos by stalling self-driving cars

According to the experts, even a small number of self-driving cars on the road could solve some major traffic problems, due to their avoidance of the unnecessary stop-and-go driving that comes from human error. But a new study from researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology presents a pretty damning flip side to this effect.

Physicists at Georgia Tech say that future hackers could wreak havoc on cities by seizing control of a limited percentage of autonomous and internet-connected cars and causing them to stall. How big of a headache could this cause? According to the researcher’s modeling of the problem, randomly stalling 20% of cars during rush hour would mean a total traffic freeze in a place like Manhattan. Hacking just 10% of vehicles during the same time frame would be enough to prevent emergency vehicles from being able to expediently weave through traffic.

“This worst-case scenario is emergent in the sense that this is one of those things where the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” Peter Yunker, assistant professor in the physics department, told Digital Trends. “You can’t predict this disruption by only considering what happens to an isolated hacked vehicle. Instead, you need to study vehicle infrastructure as a whole in order to discover the true risk.”

To carry out their simulation, the team used a standard traffic scenario called the Individual Driver Model. They then ran simulations in which they turned a certain number of “hacked” cars into obstacles that block traffic.

“We then noticed a subset of simulations where traffic was stopped completely,” Yunker said. “In these examples, hacked cars were lined up across the road’s lanes, completely blocking the motion of traffic behind them. On a citywide grid, we found that blocked streets can have a similar effect that obstructs city-scale traffic flow. In the worst-case scenario, the city’s transportation infrastructure fractures and we hit total gridlock.”

So is there any way to avoid this nightmare scenario, or do we just have to resign ourselves to the fact that the gleaming utopian future is going to be as challenging as the present? Yunker has some recommendations for those in the automotive industry.

“To avoid the emergent worst-case scenarios we discovered, we suggest limits on the number of cars on the road simultaneously connected to the same communications network,” he said. “For example, if all Toyotas were hacked, that represents 10% of all cars on the road being affected. If Toyota had, say, five different compartmentalized vehicle communications networks, then a vulnerability affecting one network would only allow a hacker access to [just] 2% of cars.”

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