Tesla Motors Inc Autopilot Mode has created a lot of concern after an accident took place in May when a Tesla S – running in Autopilot mode – failed to detect a tractor-trailer turning into its path. The driver was killed, and the question over the reliability of autonomous vehicles came into focus.
The security researchers even raised questions – what if a saboteur tried to make the Autopilot’s sensors fail? This issue is certainly even more menacing, and a group of researchers at the University of South Carolina, China’s Zhejiang University and the Chinese security firm Qihoo 360 claim they just did that, says a report from Wired.
What hackers can do to a Tesla
At the Defcon hacker conference, researchers discussed a series of tests they conducted, where they found that it was possible to deceive Tesla’s autopilot sensors making use of the off-the-shelf radio and sound-and-light emitting tools. In some cases, they caused the car’s computers to perceive an object when none existed in reality, while in other instances they made the car miss a real object in the vehicles’ path.
The research was led by Wenyuan Xu – a professor at the University of South Carolina. “The worst case scenario would be that while the car is in self-driving mode and relying on the radar, the radar is obscured and fails to detect an obstacle ahead of it. That would be a bad thing,” Xu said.
A stationary car was chosen for performing these demonstrations, and in some cases, expensive equipment was required. The degrees of success and reliability varied. Nonetheless, the research hints at rough techniques that malicious hackers could make use of to intentionally reproduce the deadly accident of May, the report notes.
Autopilot can be tricked without much effort
Tesla Motors Inc ’s Autopilot makes use of radar, cameras and ultrasonic sensors for detecting the car’s surroundings. The researchers attacked them all, and found that a radar only could lead to a high-speed collision. The researchers made use of two pieces of radio equipment – a signal generator from Keysight Technologies and a VDI frequency multiplier. The former cost $90,000 while the latter cost several hundred dollars more, the report noted.
These radio equipment’s helped to jam the radio signals that the Tesla’s radar sensor bounces off of objects to determine their position. The radar sensor is located under the front grill of the vehicle. To stimulate another vehicle, the researchers placed the equipment on a cart in front of the Tesla. Xu says, “When there’s jamming, the ‘car’ disappears, and there’s no warning.”
In a video, researchers showed how their collection of equipment placed on the cart is detected as another vehicle. When the researchers switched on their radio interference, the radio waves bouncing from the cart back to the Tesla Motors Inc are drowned out, making the virtual ‘car’ invisible to the Tesla’s autopilot.
“It’s like a train has gone by and it’s loud enough to suppress our conversation,” Xu noted.