Can Your New Car Kill You: Which State Will be the First to Ban Autonomous Cars?

Ford Robotic Test Drivers

From yesterday’s Wikileaks dump, “CIA planned to hack cars and trucks to carry out undetectable assassinations.”

  • If a car is connected to the Internet, has autonomous capabilities, and the two are connected, it will eventually be hacked.
  • The idea that the automobile will be the first connected computer to be hack-proof is as naive as it gets.
  • No Mayor, Governor or President will want a carnage of this nature to happen on their watch.
  • As a result, we are likely going to see bans on autonomous cars.  And of the automakers, Tesla is most exposed to the downside. It was in 2015 that I speculated about state actors taking control over self-driving cars as a tool to eliminate political enemies or other undesirable people
  • And yes, in that article I included analogies with Hitler, Mao and Stalin.  Basically, if they had remote access to self-driving cars, they would have had a field day with them.  No need to put the undesirables on trains or starve them to death.

I elaborated further in my piece from 2016 HERE.

Many people dismissed my article as total crackpot.  Basically, surely nobody would ever mis-use autonomous cars?  Instead of allegedly saving lives, autonomous cars would instead become a tool to enforce the state’s opinion on which people should live, and who should die.

Well, it now seems that at least the CIA has had the same idea.

“CIA planned to hack cars and trucks to carry out undetectable assassinations” is the headline.

Makes you feel really warm and fuzzy about the prospect of a remote person suddenly taking control of your car, and making your death seem like an accident, doesn’t it?

Car bombs are so 1970s Baader-Meinhof and Red Brigades — or Iraq ca 2005.  They leave a trace and risk alienate other civilians, perhaps with collateral casualties.  So messy.  So pre-self-driving cars.

Better yet to simply make it seem like Deplorable Bob fell asleep at the wheel, or drove into oncoming truck traffic.  “Hey, it was just a sad accident; Bob must have been distracted.”

Volvo Autonomous Drive

We keep hearing from companies who claim to have invented non-hackable cars.  Yeah, good luck with that!  If someone tells you that the first connected computer on Earth to be non-hackable will be the automobile, I have some beachfront property in Nebraska to sell you.

If it’s possible to make something non-hackable, why didn’t someone think of that before?  How about a non-hackable PC?  A non-hackable smartphone?  Etcetera.  Surely the car can’t be the only item that can be made non-hackable, then.  You think that if it was possible, someone might be offering that kind of non-hackable computer already a long time ago.

The question isn’t whether a connected car — which of course contains one or several computers — will be hacked.  The question is only when and by whom.  People will listen to what you say in your car, and if the car is self-driving, they can inject a little bit of horror at just the right moment.  One second of the wrong steering or acceleration input means certain death.

It’s not important whether it’s the CIA, FBI, GRU, FSA or some other 3-letter government entity that does it first.  This arms race will be universal far faster than nuclear proliferation.  From some 16 year old schmuck who is sitting in his mom’s basement, to a sophisticated government intelligence, military or law enforcement agency, we are facing a future in which the automobile fleet will soon become nothing but remotely controlled missiles on four wheels.

2016 ford fusion av autonomous vehicle

In order to prevent such a certain calamity, government action will be not only necessary, but more likely than not.  People should have the right to take their own risks, but the problem is that innocent people who refuse to drive connected and self-driving cars will be in danger, through no fault on their own.  It is the same reason behind having speed limits: They’re not meant for you; they’re meant to protect the people around you.

What does this mean for government policy?

Total physical mayhem in society resulting from cars deliberately slamming into things based on commands from people located near and far, is not what you want if you are a Mayor, Governor or President.  There is only one way to ensure that this does not happen on your watch.

And that is to ban the combination of autonomous and connected cars.

Autonomous cars might be allowed — as long as they are not connected to the cloud/Internet.  Connected cars might be allowed — as long as they have no autonomous capabilities.

But not both technologies in the same car.  That would be banned.

Whether you are a Mayor, a Governor or the U.S. President, this should be on your thoughts.  Do you want this to happen on your watch?

I expect the first bans within the next year or two, probably driven by a state government.  Then again, perhaps the Trump administration, fearing annihilation of the U.S. population orchestrated by a foreign or domestic hacker, will make the first move.

What does it mean for the automakers?

Probably not much, for many of them.  If you are selling cars with limited if any, autonomous capabilities, there is probably nothing to worry about.  That goes for many cars today, from most large automakers such as FCA (FCAU), Ford (F), Mazda and General Motors (GM), just to mention some obvious examples.

Likewise, if you sell a car that’s connected to the cloud, but the car may not steer, accelerate or brake autonomously, that shouldn’t be a worry.  Many of the large automakers could fall into this category as well.

On the other hand, an example of a car that is connected AND has some significant autonomous capabilities to steer, brake and accelerate, is Tesla (TSLA).  With so much of Tesla’s marketing message and — presumably — its valuation, resting on consumer interest in autonomous driving, this is a major risk factor for the stock.

Conclusion: Predicting the future

So what do you think?  Will a Mayor, Governor or the President be the first one to ban autonomous cars?  Or will it happen in some other country first?

As a consumer:  What to do?

If you want to be on the safe side, and you don’t have a death wish, may I interest you in a car that’s not connected and that has no capacity to steer your car remotely?  The trusty Toyota Corolla is sounding better by the minute here.
At the time of submitting this article for publication, the author was long GM and F, and short TSLA.  However, positions can change at any time.  The author regularly attends press conferences, new vehicle launches and equivalent, hosted by most major automakers.

Editor’s Note: All opinions expressed are that of the author.