Regulations, cybersecurity main hurdles left for autonomous vehicles

'Thieves no longer need a crowbar to break into your car, they just need an iPhone,' says Sen. Markey

Connected cars and autonomous vehicles are coming; it's just a matter of when and how. The technology is essentially viable, and now it's up to U.S. lawmakers, government agency officials and industry executives to come to an agreement on making these rolling mobile devices street legal.

That's easier said than done, though, and the issue is not without its many facets and considerations.

Connected cars are a welcome addition to the roads as long as they meet the safety standards Americans have demanded in their vehicles, said Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who spoke during the keynote session of the Connected Cars USA 2016 forum. Markey has a history of automotive legislation and sits on several relevant subcommittees in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.

The senator commissioned about a year ago a report called Tracking & Hacking: Security & Privacy Gaps Put American Drivers At Risk (.pdf), which outlines some of the weaknesses automakers still have in cybersecurity. He said a car that can be taken over remotely or otherwise is simply unfit for the road.

"Thieves no longer need a crowbar to break into your car, they just need an iPhone," Markey said. "And they can do much more than open the doors; it's possible for wireless hackers to control the steering, acceleration, and even cut the brakes."

FTC Commissioner Terrell McSweeny

Cybersecurity is also a primary concern for Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Terrell McSweeny, though she focuses more on the personally identifiable information that the cars of tomorrow will collect.

The FTC had its status as the de facto watchdog for data breaches in the private sector confirmed with the Wyndham case last year. Car manufacturers essentially have no history of collecting personally identifiable information, but it will be common for connected cars to very soon collect data on location, biometrics, app usage and a bevy of other information. McSweeny said it's important they nail down that process from the outset.

"What I've learned from visiting with hackers and security researchers is that cars are prominent targets," McSweeny said. "But also that this prominence can create a real opportunity to enhance the safety and security of cars and the trust of consumers."

McSweeny also said that the auto industry has a leg up because the software development community has already laid the groundwork for safer connections. Detroit would do well to form partnerships with Silicon Valley, she said, to accelerate the growing pains of sound cybersecurity practices.

That's not to say the auto industry isn't already working on these issues. Quite the contrary, in fact, said Harry Lightsey, executive director of global connected consumer experience in General Motors' public policy group.

Lightsey said some of his company's car models coming out this year will add a layer of safety made possible by digital connections. Dedicated short-range communications and vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, tech will make it so approaching vehicles can communicate around bends and corners to alert drivers of coming dangers.

While fully autonomous cars are the goal, Lightsey said his company is adding features now that bring the industry closer. He said enhanced cruise control for lane following and other auto movement, applicable safety add-ons for inexperienced drivers, more optimized ride-sharing services alongside Lyft, and other features are all coming soon.

It seems the primary barrier for a lot of autonomous driving innovation is the regulatory climate. However, Markey said that's something the country can't get wrong.

When vehicles driven by software that could encounter errors, it's important to think through every specific circumstance. He asked whether an autonomous car would swerve off the road to avoid a sprinting deer even if there were other dangers alongside it.

"A car … in and of itself has no meaning," Markey said. "It's rather for us to imbue these connected cars with the values that we hold dear to give this innovation meaning. Those values include keeping our loved ones safe on the road, and that is the task."

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