The era of self-driving cars is quickly approaching as Google and other companies fine-tune their ground-breaking technologies. Although there are no market-ready models approved for public use, at least one state is moving forward with proposed legislation that would address one of the security risks inherent in computer-driven automobiles: attacks by hackers.
Four Michigan senators in April 2016 introduced bills No. 927 and No. 928 into the state Legislature. If passed, the laws would dictate than any person found guilty of hacking into the computer controls of autonomous automobile would be guilty of a felony and could receive a sentence of up to life in prison, depending on other circumstances.
Autonomous cars are, by their very nature, chock full of computer systems, all of which may be vulnerable to attack by a hacker. Indeed, human-driven cars feature this same shortcoming. Although many companies are experimenting with so-called driverless vehicles, most public information has been focused on their ability to navigate without causing car accidents, so it may not seem as though a great deal of research has been invested into protecting the on-board computers against external attacks.
However, the Michigan law may be creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist – yet. The average consumer doesn’t have access to an autonomous vehicle and isn’t like to be able to purchase one for at least several years. It seems likely that this type of transportation is inevitable, but by the time it is, security measures may be been established for their computers.
In addition, the legislation overlaps already-existing federal laws. If a hacker were to access an autonomous vehicle’s computer system and cause a fatal crash, his or her actions would already be punishable by current laws against murder or causing bodily harm. Even trespassing laws could come into play.
Plenty of car owners like to modify the computer controls on their traditional vehicles in hopes of removing an error code or improving performance. If they had an autonomous car instead, however, accessing the control panel and changing the computer could be considered a felony under the proposed Michigan laws. Mechanics who were considered “uncertified” would be risking a felony charge if they attempted to make a repair to a customer’s autonomous vehicle. Drivers stranded on the roadside would not be able to get technical assistance from repair services with running afoul of the law.
Although there may be value in getting ahead of possible technological crimes and putting deterrents in place, the Michigan proposals are far ahead of the game and may be overbroad in their provisions.