Car- and truck-based attacks will hasten the acceptance of self-driving vehicles?

The news lately has been full of stories about attacks in Western cities by drivers of cars, vans, or trucks. Latest example: “Armed Man Is Killed After Driving Into Police Convoy on Champs-Élysées” (nytimes)

I’m wondering if this will hasten the acceptance of the self-driving vehicle. I dimly remember years ago writing that the transition to self-driving might involve a cliff date beyond which it would become illegal for humans to drive, the theory being that a 6,000 lb. SUV was too dangerous in the hands of a distracted/incompetent human. But if the hazards from human-driven vehicles now include intentional attacks rather than just accidental ones, perhaps the day will come sooner?

This raises the question of how to ensure that self-driving vehicles aren’t themselves converted into weapons. What stops a malevolent person from updating or substituting out the software in a self-driving vehicle? Can this problem be solved technically with trusted systems?

Here’s a scary thought: fearful citizens will demand that the government outlaw privately-owned vehicles. The only vehicles allowed to exist will be not only self-driving, but owned and maintained by the government or government-authorized companies.


  1. dean

    June 19, 2017 @ 3:01 pm


    From safety point of view, self-driving vehicles have potential to increase danger by providing possibility of remote influence or control of vehicle’s path by common means: either GPS signal spoofing, sensor signal spoofing or just regular code hacking.

  2. Ken Hagler

    June 19, 2017 @ 3:58 pm


    I’ve found that the people who are in favor of banning guns (other than their own) are generally also already in favor of banning privately-owned vehicles (other than their own).

  3. ilya

    June 19, 2017 @ 4:12 pm


    I think soon after self-driving cars become practical we’ll see many cities declaring their downtowns to be “no-parking zones” (you come in a car that drives itself away or goes to pick up the next customer).

    From there people may indeed gradually learn to expect that only self-driving cars are allowed anywhere near the places with large numbers of pedestrians, or perhaps also on the highways (imagine “mothers against dumb [meat] drivers”).

    A total ban? I’d say the existing stock of privately-owned vehicles is too large (and I’d bet the dumb cars will still be produced in large numbers 20 years from now). So not in the next 30-50 years.

  4. Fazal Majid

    June 19, 2017 @ 4:51 pm


    Given the technical sophistication of terrorist groups such as ISIS, who managed to turn civilian DJI quadcopters into a poor man’s Reaper drones, it’s only a matter of time until self-driving cars are turned into suicide-bombs without the annoying suicide part. Or perhaps they will install RFID scanners and program them to mow down the nearest American citizen unwise enough to carry his passport.

    The solution to the problem is the humble bollard.

  5. Dingus

    June 19, 2017 @ 5:42 pm


    I do believe you’re right Phil!

    This seems like a great time to invest in equasterian stock. A tried and true technology that is both green and free range!

  6. Neal

    June 19, 2017 @ 6:27 pm


    It is probably true that a traditional vehicle is easier to use in a terrorist attack than a self driving vehicle. However, since the Berlin truck attack there have been about 15,000 non-terrorist related auto fatalities in the EU. Perhaps the novelty of the recent attacks will make a difference in our acceptance of traditional vehicles, but it is hard to see why it should.

  7. Neal

    June 19, 2017 @ 6:30 pm


    I should have said “easier to use in a suicide terrorist attack”. As other have pointed out, if the perpetrators care about getting caught then self driving cars have advantages even if the attack itself is harder to organize.

  8. Tom

    June 20, 2017 @ 3:38 am


    Similar thoughts have occurred already:

    Looking forward to a future WannaCry installing Killer Truck edition on the city fleet of delivery vehicles.

  9. Mitch Berkson

    June 20, 2017 @ 8:16 am


    Have we seen any manual to self-driving car conversions using a brick on the accelerator? It wouldn’t seem to require that much accuracy to self-drive that into a crowd.

  10. philg

    June 20, 2017 @ 8:20 am


    A friend says the big transition will come when it costs 10X to insure a human-driven vehicle (since insurance is mandatory).

  11. Finn

    June 20, 2017 @ 8:35 am


    What about this proposal to reduce car- and gun-related deaths by 50%: place surveillance cameras along all public roads, and automatically ticket careless, incompetent, macho, anti-authority, absent-minded drivers; those with such characters, e.g., with more than 3 violations of changing lanes without turning on turn signals, are forbidden to own non-self-driving cars (and guns, unless they receive training and pass tests to police standards). Some may argue this invades privacy; but one can counter argue that surveillance cameras are no more invasive than ordinary citizens’ watchful eyes, the latter being the only available tools when the laws were written. This is perhaps the last chance of using traffic-violation-based filtering to root out the potential dangers, prior to self-driving cars become prevalent and we loose the opportunity to filter out the clustered, dangerous, characters.

  12. Tom

    June 20, 2017 @ 10:21 am


    Well you see, that would be racist.

  13. ZZAZZ

    June 21, 2017 @ 10:00 am


    I expect to see every train, subway, plane, ship, tug, barge, golf-cart, truck, tractor, and maybe taxi self-driving years before self-driving cars take over the roads.

    Thinking that self-diving cars will replace human driven cars ignores 90% of the value a human driven car provides. Niche markets only–and yeah, city center might be a niche–people drive from home to inter-modal park and ride lots and transfer to a self-driving car for the last few miles of the journey. Brave new world!

    Planes already have auto pilots–what do we need human pilots for. Get rid of the cockpit and flight crew altogether–pack in another twenty paying passengers–and make it impossible for a terrorist to commandeer the plane. win-win-win-win-win.

  14. PJay

    June 23, 2017 @ 3:37 pm


    I think developers have to overcome the Trolley Problem in an ever-changing setting for self-driving cars to catch on.

    My philosophy professor, Carl Cohen loved to throw out this problem to the class.

    Of course, lawyers first have to define liability (“who to sue”) in the event problems arise with a self-driving car, among defining regulatory and tort liability revenue opportunities for members of the legal industry….

  15. PJay

    June 23, 2017 @ 3:40 pm

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