To save lives, it's time for our cars to 'talk', US says. Are there risks?

The Department of Transportation is moving us closer to the day when cars exchange 'basic safety data' to avoid collisions. But legal and cyber-security experts cite concerns.

Susan Walsh/AP/File
A side mirror warning signal flashes in a Ford Taurus at an automobile testing area in Oxon Hill, Md., May 22, 2012. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication lets cars and light trucks communicate with each other to prevent collisions

Hailing the advent of what he called “the next generation of auto safety improvements” that could save thousands of lives a year, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx fired a virtual starting gun Monday for US government adoption of vehicle-to-vehicle, or V2V, communications technology.

The technology, already tested in a pilot program in Michigan, promises to let cars “talk” to one another to reduce accidents, and could even lead, one day, to driverless cars.

However the technology faces security and privacy hurdles, warn legal and cyber-security experts, that if not addressed to the satisfaction of consumers and automakers could introduce a raft of liability and safety issues and even lead to rejection of the technology by American consumers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced Monday it was taking steps toward requiring V2V technology for the US vehicle fleet. By allowing vehicles to exchange “basic safety data, such as speed and position, 10 times per second,” NHTSA said in a statement, traffic accidents involving unimpaired drivers could be reduced by as much as 80 percent, preventing millions of accidents a year and saving thousands of lives.

With 34,080 motor vehicle deaths in 2012 and millions of crashes overall each year, vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for young Americans age 4 to 34, NHTSA reports. Auto accidents annually also led to more than 4 billion hours of travel delays, 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel, and urban congestion that leads to $78 billion in losses, the agency estimated using 2009 federal statistics.

"Vehicle-to-vehicle technology represents the next generation of auto safety improvements, building on the life-saving achievements we've already seen with safety belts and air bags," Secretary Foxx said. "By helping drivers avoid crashes, this technology will play a key role in improving the way people get where they need to go while ensuring that the US remains the leader in the global automotive industry."

Such V2V communications can provide the vehicle and driver with a “360-degree situational awareness” to address potential crash situations. With speed and location being broadcast from nearby vehicles, other vehicles can identify risks and provide drivers with warnings to avoid other vehicles in common crash types such as rear-end, lane change, and intersection crashes.

It can, NHTSA noted, help a driver decide if it is safe to pass on a two-lane road, make a left turn across oncoming traffic by detecting oncoming threats hundreds of yards away, including those that cannot be seen.

Part of the impetus for announcing the next steps flows from an August 2012 pilot test by the Department of Transportation in Ann Arbor, Mich. In that test, nearly 3,000 vehicles were deployed in the “largest-ever road test” of V2V technology. It showed, NHTSA said, that products from different vehicle manufacturers and suppliers work together in real-world environments.

But some who have been waiting for years to see the resolution of security and privacy concerns about V2V technology were wary about both.

In its press statement, NHTSA said the data sent between vehicles “does not identify those vehicles, but merely contains basic safety data.” Further, “the system as contemplated contains several layers of security and privacy protection to ensure that vehicles can rely on messages sent from other vehicles.”

But that’s not too reassuring to some worried that V2V systems may not be ready for prime time when it comes to privacy. Dorothy Glancy, a professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law and an expert in intelligent transportation systems and privacy has been watching V2V development closely for years.

“They say they have layers of security and privacy protections, and that’s a good thing,” she says. “It’s just that’s nobody’s seen them yet – and we’re really looking forward to see them. They say the data being emitted by the vehicles will be anonymous, but also that the vehicle will be identifiable if there’s a safety problem to be fixed. So it’s hard to know what’s going on.”

Her concerns include the potential for stalkers to track vehicles with ease and for police to tally speeding tickets automatically via roadside devices collecting the traffic data. Whether such systems could issue a ticket specifying that a motorist was going “72 mph for 12 miles depends entirely how security and privacy are built into the system.”

Other questions include whether participation in V2V safety communications will be voluntary or required for all vehicles, how anonymity of the V2V safety broadcasts from vehicles will be maintained, and whether V2V vehicle safety data communications will be retained for research or other uses.

But other questions lurk, too, about cyber-security – and how to keep hackers from spoofing or tampering with safety communications between vehicles.

While no actual hack attacks have been identified, academic researchers have so far documented a raft of weaknesses in existing telematics communication systems. In one 2011 study, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of Washington were able to hack into the vehicle’s main computer systems, according to media reports.

Last year, researchers showed not only the ability to get access – but to tell the cars what to do by accessing onboard systems remotely.

 “We demonstrate how on two different vehicles that in some circumstances we are able to control the steering, braking, acceleration, and display,” researchers Dr. Charlie Miller & Chris Valasek wrote in their study.

David Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, an Ann Arbor market research firm, says the V2V concept holds promise and has been embraced by the industry – but cautiously.

“Cyber-security in relation to the automobile is a very big deal,” he says. “We’ve got government and industry working to find the path to the best benefits and to reduce accidents. And we’ve got V2V and data privacy all in a big pot – and it’s boiling. The technology is here. But there’s a lot of work to be done.”

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