Mobility Portal, Spain
Date: May 13, 2024
Javiera Altamirano foto de perfil
By Javiera Altamirano

Is Elon Musk feeling the heat? Autonomous mobility under scrutiny in the face of hacking risks

With the emergence of autonomous vehicles, concerns arise about the possibility of their systems being hacked and causing accidents. Are they safe? Are authorities working on it? Mobility Portal Europe talks to the president of AEVAC to provide an overview.
Autonomous mobility hacking risks

An increasing number of companies are venturing into autonomous mobility innovation, enticing governments and public transportation operators to invest in this technology due to the numerous benefits it offers and the excitement of “feeling like you’re in the future”.

However, as is often the case with the arrival of every technological innovation that may bring about a disruptive change in the system, fears arise and possible future scenarios are contemplated.

One of these fears is depicted in the film “Leave the World Behind“, released in late 2023 and starring Julia Roberts and Ethan Hawke.

In the movie, the autopilot system of Tesla cars is hacked, causing them to crash into each other and, as a result, the route becomes obstructed.

On social media, some users pointed out that this Netflix film constitutes a “direct attack” on both this technology and Elon Musk, CEO of the company.

This scene was a blatant criticism of Tesla, but it lasted less than five minutes,” one user posted on X.

“After watching Leave the World Behind, I’ll never want to own a Tesla,” another posted.

Did Elon Musk feel the heat?

The CEO didn’t hesitate to respond: “Teslas can charge from solar panels even if the world goes fully Mad Max and there is no more gasoline!.”

The reason for this comment is because the movie depicts an apocalyptic future marked by water, oil, and energy shortages.

But Musk made no comments about the possibility of hacking the system. Strange, isn’t it?

Indeed, to find the answer to this question, Mobility Portal Europe engages in a dialogue with Aitor Fernández Martín, president of the Spanish Association of Connected Autonomous Vehicles (AEVAC).

Aitor Fernández Martín, president of the Spanish Association of Connected Autonomous Vehicles.

AEVAC is currently involved in a project called SELFY, focused on cybersecurity and involving 16 partners from eight different countries.

This initiative, which began on June 1, 2022, and will conclude on May 31, 2025, is funded under the Horizon Europe Programme.

“We are developing a toolbox aimed at enabling vehicles to dynamically and resiliently respond to any threat that may arise,” explains the association’s president.

He further elaborates, “Additionally, we are working to identify the most important international standards and to determine what lessons can be drawn from this project to engage with standard-setting entities and propose improvements for the future.”

The objective is to ensure that all entities manufacturing and deploying autonomous vehicles ensure that “everything works as it should.”

When asked about the possibility of an event like in “Leave the World Behind,” Fernández Martín responds that “efforts are being made to prevent it from happening.”

It is the first industry taking cybersecurity seriously, even before the vehicles are launched. This was not the case in other sectors,” he acknowledges.

In this regard, the president of AEVAC makes it clear that efforts are underway to ensure that artificial intelligence – which will be in charge of the unit – telecommunications networks, and the required infrastructure function flawlessly.

“Humanity is progressing, and we are facing a change that, when it occurs, will completely revolutionise the way we understand mobility,” he asserts.

Autopilot accident: Innocent or guilty?

Many are left wondering about the accidents involving autonomous vehicles.

For instance, a well-known case occurred in 2018 when an Apple engineer experienced a fatal car accident with his Tesla Model X operating on autopilot.

During the incident, the vehicle veered off the road in California, clearly implicating driver assistance.

As a result, the company would face a series of lawsuits over accidents related to this technology, putting the car manufacturer at risk of monetary judgments and reputation damage.

Elon Musk is feeling the heat.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys questioned a Tesla witness whether the company knew that drivers would not monitor the road when using its driver assistance system.

Indeed, the manufacturer stated that the victim had misused the system because he was playing a video game just before the accident.

The case follows two previous trials in California regarding autopilot, which the company won by arguing that the involved drivers had not followed its instructions to remain attentive while using the system.

So, does autonomous mobility pose a “risk” to human life?

Fernández Martín explains that, currently, “equal importance is being given to both safety and optimisation.”

“There is effort being put into ensuring that everything works as it should, to make sure the vehicle is as safe as possible and does not cause accidents,” he acknowledges.

According to surveys conducted, out of every 100 road accidents, 95 occur due to human error, poor road conditions, or lack of signage.

In this regard, concerning autonomous mobility, the president of AEVAC points out: “Accidents, for various reasons, will happen. But they will be reduced in number due to the human factor.”

They are much safer,” he declares without hesitation.

“I have ridden in level 2, 3, and 4 vehicles, and the effort being made by all parts of the industry to manufacture the vehicle as safely as possible is bearing fruit. Intensive research is being conducted,” he adds.

It is worth mentioning that various companies are conducting experiments with this technology before launching it on the road, under real conditions and, of course, under human control.

“It should be noted that the route taken by a vehicle from the fleet automatically is learned by the rest of the units, and it is millions of kilometres,” Fernández Martín explains.

And he continues: “For a person to gain that experience would take thousands of years.”

In this sense, one of the main benefits of this technology and its main differentiator is that it can be optimised “to an extreme level.”

Who take the blame if two autonomous vehicles collide with each other?

It will depend on the level of autonomy of the vehicle.

“Up to level 3, the driver is ultimately responsible for driving. But at level 4 and 5, it’s another agent,” comments Fernández Martín.

Who will be that agent? There are different models.

The first model indicates that the one responsible for the technology’s failure, such as the manufacturer, will be held accountable.

However, when the system has reached a high level of maturity, the one assuming the blame will be “the one responsible for the infrastructure, because several accidents occur due to factors external to the vehicle.”

In this regard, depending on the cause, it could be a municipality or a concessionaire.

“This applies to accidents involving two autonomous vehicles as well as with a person,” asserts the president of AEVAC.

Europe needs standards to regulate autonomous mobility

“The European Union considers autonomous mobility as one of the fundamental pillars for the continent’s development in the coming decades,” asserts Fernández Martín.

That is why different countries in the region are working on regulations that regulate the use of this technology.

For example, Germany already has its own developed regulations, and it is estimated that Spain could launch its own this year.

“The objective is for us to have a body of standards that allow a vehicle to travel throughout the continent, enabling greater scalability and the ability to compete logistically for capacity with countries the size of the United States or China,” he says.

And he continues: “If Spain and Germany go it alone, when the vehicle wants to travel to another country with which they have commercial ties, it will not work as it should.”

In this regard, Europe needs standards that allow units to travel freely throughout the continent.

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