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Michigan Tightens Up Hacking Penalties Surrounding Driverless Cars

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【Summary】Software developers are not alone in the fight to protect self-driving cars from malicious attacks. Lawmakers are also stepping in to enforce restrictions and hefty fines for hacking an autonomous vehicle. One of the states pioneering this practice is Michigan. Officials recently passed two bills that specifically targets hacking driverless vehicles.

Original Michael Cheng    Nov 02, 2016 6:25 PM PT

Reinforcing trust in driverless cars entails boosting the vehicle's ability to mitigate cyberattacks. Unfortunately, in a connected world where smart cars "talk" to roadside sensors, each other and people (via smartphones and wearables), the risk of getting hacked increases exponentially. At the moment, software developers in the car manufacturing industry are working around-the-clock to prevent criminals from doing what they do best.

Software developers are not alone in the fight to protect self-driving cars from malicious attacks. Lawmakers are also stepping in to enforce restrictions and hefty fines for hacking an autonomous vehicle. One of the states pioneering this practice is Michigan. Officials recently passed two bills that specifically targets hacking driverless vehicles.

I know what you're thinking- there are only a handful of autonomous cars on the road; and most are participating in closed pilot programs. From a long-term perspective, such laws should be in place before self-driving cars hit mainstream adoption, which is why they are being passed now. This may help discourage criminals from attempting to break into smart cars.

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Raising the Stakes

The bill that went through the hands of the Michigan Senate focuses on raising the stakes for tampering with an autonomous car's computer system. Before the bill was passed, interfering with a self-driving car's computing components resulted in a $50,000 fine and a 10-year prison sentence. This penalty is only applicable if the attack caused injury to the passengers in the vehicle. The new bill heavily reinforces this punishment with a life-in-prison sentence, if the criminal act results in death.

Interestingly, the laws are also designed to protect carmakers and software developers of autonomous vehicles. Under the bill, such individuals would not be penalized for servicing a smart car. For hackers, if the computing system was compromised and reversed without harming the owner or passengers of the car, a $500 penalty (maximum) and a 93-day prison sentence may be applied.

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No Human Drivers 

Earlier this year, the state Senate passed a set of expansive bills that aimed to remove human drivers during autonomous vehicle testing. Many officials believe that this could help catapult the state's efforts in creating a suitable testing ground for automakers. In the event the vehicle performs below the carmaker's standards for safe driving on public roads, the researcher would be required to take control of the vessel or the vehicle would have to stop on its own, using an emergency braking system (for example).

"Michigan is among eight states with laws related to autonomous cars, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Nevada was the first state to authorize self-driving vehicles in 2011, and California, Florida, Louisiana, North Dakota, Tennessee and Utah followed," said the Los Angeles Times.

For now, most of the research will be limited to smart city testing centers around the state. The state is currently in the process of building its second testing site (located in Willow Run) for driverless car manufacturers. State officials are providing $3 million from the Michigan Strategic Fund to streamline the purchase of the 311-acre property and cover operational costs associated with the program.

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