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Distraction and Risk

It's just a two-ton object traveling at 60 mph surrounded by others more or less the same. What could go wrong?


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One of the things that gets an insufficient amount of attention is distracted driving, which NHTSA describes as “any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle, fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system—anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.” I would delete the adjective before the word driving because people naturally assume that they are “safe” drivers, which I would argue they aren’t. According to NHTSA, in 2016 3,450 people died as a result of someone being distracted while driving and in 2015, 391,000 were injured—and certainly the injuries that these people sustained were probably more than minor.

Now people in the industry who are working in the areas of human-machine interfaces (HMIs), particularly in areas like infotainment and the organization of knobs, switches and buttons or the digital analogs of those physical elements would undoubtedly take exception to my claim because there isn’t a person among them who doesn’t take driver distraction seriously.

But people who are behind the wheel are the ones who aren’t giving due consideration to the activity. Arguably, they are giving little consideration to the act of driving. It is sort of like walking: something you just do. Unless, of course, you have some physical impairment—such as the consequence of an injury—that makes walking something that you have to pay the utmost attention to, each and every step. Walking is one thing. But driving is that to some exponential factor not only regarding the ability to get from A to B faster, but also in the context of resulting consequences. Just as most people unthinkingly drive, most people are also unaware of Newton’s Second Law of Motion—until their vehicle encounters another object in space.

Because of that, I am a proponent of autonomous systems for transporting people, be they individuals or groups (i.e., in car-like or bus-like vehicles).

Autonomous driving systems never get bored, never daydream, never get distracted, never apply makeup, never read, or never eat cereal with a spoon out of a bowl while driving. All things that people do. I mean, it is just a two-ton object traveling at 60 mph surrounded by others more or less the same. What could go wrong?

But now I have a problem. I had the opportunity to talk with Jeff Lebowitz, vice president of market development for Upstream (upstream.auto), a company that has developed a cloud-based cybersecurity system for vehicles. And now I’m leery of automated driver assistance systems (ADAS) of all SAE levels.

Essentially, Upstream C4 is based on big data analytics. It determines what is “normal” communication between the vehicle and the network and whether there are any anomalies. It just may be that these anomalies are attempts to hack into the vehicle. Lebowitz said that if your vehicle has the ability to send traffic, it can receive traffic. And what it may receive may not be what is wanted. As OEMs are all working on providing vehicles with connectivity, as insurance companies are increasingly offering customers a dongle that they plug into the OBDII ports of their vehicles that collect and transmit driving information, as telematics providers are also providing dongles that turn cars into hotspots, there are a whole lot of places where there are vulnerabilities. If you have a newer vehicle or any of those devices, you could be at risk.

“My concern,” he said, “is that people don’t believe that there’s a risk that needs to be paid attention to until there is full autonomy. But there is risk, just based upon connectivity.”

Lebowitz said that he once worked in cyber with a large defense manufacturer that had created a spreadsheet with the names of attackers in rows along the side and the 12 levels of defense across the top. When there was an attack, they would indicate on the spreadsheet how far along the defenses the attack made it before it was stopped. He said that for vehicles, that top column is blank.

No, as individuals we may not be subject to attack by hackers. But Lebowitz posited that it would be possible for fleets to be attacked: It could be that a given company’s truck fleet could be unable to start on a given day. Or thousands of vehicles of a given type and model could have an untoward message displayed on their screens. Ransom could be demanded in the first instance; stock market manipulation could be the result of the second. Hackers—who may not just be characters out of William Gibson novels but nation-states and organized crime—could wreak all manner of havoc, financial and otherwise.

“There is risk,” Lebowitz days. People need to face up to it. “But if people aren’t taking action against the risk, there are problems.” Potentially real problems. Don’t be distracted.