Self-Driving Cars, Part Two

Thanks, those of you who read my previous posting & commented. It’s nice to know there’s something beyond the bit bucket out there…

I’d like to share a different set of thoughts about another aspect of self-driving cars.  Even if the vehicles are perfect — even if they never mess up, never break down, they will still share the road with emergency vehicles.  

People will still fall off ladders while pruning an apple tree or putting up Christmas lights or painting the living room.  People will slip in the bathtub or bite the neighbor’s dog.  Johnny will dive for the Frisbee and crash into the barbecue, which will tip over and catch the Astroturf® on fire (or at least melt it).  Speaking of fires… Don’t forget earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, and pizza delivery… 

Anyway, you get the picture.

So, self-driving cars will need some facility for emergency override so emergency vehicles can get through that high speed, tightly packed traffic. We’ll be speeding down the highway, riding in air-conditioned splendor, reading, watching a vid, “entertaining” a date, and, suddenly, the car will brake and pull to the side to allow emergency vehicles to roar past.  After a moment, travel resumes. No fuss, no muss.

Wrong.  I think this is a serious wrinkle.  Maybe not an Achilles heel, but a problem nonetheless.  Because if an emergency responder can broadcast a code that overrides the nav systems on a sea of self-driving cars, you can bet some bad actors will also figure out how to do it.

Maybe it’s “only a prank.”  Some teenage boys get the code.  They wire up a gizmo and glue it to their Handy-Dandy Drone and fly it over I-405 at rush hour.  Voila!  Instant parking lot.  The little pricks laugh so hard they wet themselves.

But maybe it’s something more sinister.  Maybe some bad guys rob a bank.  They use the nav override codes to open a getaway path through traffic AND to create a blockage so the cops have a hard time following.  “No problem,” you reply.  “Just go after the bank robbers with a helicopter.”  That might work, but it takes time to scramble a copter and get it to the right spot.  By the time the copter arrives at the traffic jam the robbers have abandoned their getaway vehicle and are bicycling to their hideout.

Worse, some psychos might get off on auto mayhem.  Remember the I-405 at rush hour prank?  What if, instead of shutting down the vehicles, the override command puts ALL the pedals to the metal?  Or, still worse, they goose the average speed up to 150kph and then send a  couple of commands: “Hard Right” + “Emergency Brake,” for instance.

“Nah,” you say.  The override codes will be secret.  Only duly-chartered emergency personnel will have the codes.

I shake my head and look at the ground.  “For about a week, maybe,” I mutter.

Hopefully, some RSGs (Really Smart Guys) will figure out a way to prevent Self-Driving Car Mayhem.  I hope so.  I think self-driving cars are the second best thing we could do for ground transportation.  But those RSGs better get busy.

© Michael C. Glaviano 2009 - 2016