(Standard-Examiner (Ogden, UT) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 29--LOGAN -- In the future, hitting the road will be much different than it is now. Instead of every driver steering his or her own car independently, computer-controlled vehicles will move in groups.
"What we're actually looking at is connected, cooperative, automated vehicles," said Ryan Gerdes, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Utah State University, describing strings of vehicles, with a leader transmitting some control to the other vehicles.
That type of system is necessary, he said, to produce substantial gains in safety, capacity and efficiency on highways. Gerdes is part of a research team that received $1.2 million in funding from the National Science Foundation to make sure those safety gains aren't lost to hackers.
In the not-too-distant future, vehicles heading in the same direction may join what's called a "platoon."
"They'll travel very close together, at very high speed. To make that work, we have to assume that all vehicles are going ... to respond to external events in the same way," Gerdes said.
That means turning over control to computer systems in multiple vehicles that communicate with each other.
"But what happens if we have an attacker who chooses to respond differently? In that case, we could see catastrophic results," he said, explaining that the attacker could be a hacker motivated by anything from boredom to terrorism.
Gerdes and his team are looking at worst-case scenarios.
"Let us say someone is attacking your vehicle -- jamming your vehicle so it can't talk with the company providing the map for the vehicle," he said. "You still want to have the vehicle perform in a safe manner."
Gerdes said he doesn't want the idea of the study to scare anyone, because the idea is to make systems more resilient and safe.
"What we're trying to do is protect this system before it ever becomes operational," he said. "We're looking at potential problems so they never arise. ... We're going to prevent that from happening by thinking about security from the very inception of the vehicles. This is actually a very proactive approach."
Vehicles are already being automated in many ways, Gerdes said, pointing out that most cars have things like anti-lock brakes, automatic traction control and cruise control.
"More and more vehicles now have adaptive cruise control," he said, adding that it will spread from high-end cars down to less expensive models. "Collision avoidance is another great example."
With all of that technology already in vehicles, Gerdes predicts truckers will be platooning within five years.
"Hopefully it's something that at the very least is going to relieve tedium and decrease drive times," he said, but automated vehicles should also deliver savings through fuel efficiency and increase safety. "We have a mandate to get down to zero fatalities. That's what we're trying to do. We want to make sure attackers can't cause a fatality."
The grant continues for four years.
"We have at least eight students working with us, only four of whom are funded on the grant, but we're trying to create a fairly long-lasting group here at USU focused on automotive vehicles and automated vehicle security. ... We're going to be bringing in undergraduate students to work with us as well."
Gerdes and his colleagues, Ming Li, Rajnikant Sharma, and Chris Winstead, and Kevin Heaslip of Virginia Tech, are in the development mode.
"We're working on building a robot fleet," he said.
The team has robots capable of controlling vehicles at 30 mph and has plans to ramp the test abilities up to 45 mph.
"Since we're going to be crashing cars -- that will be the inevitable outcome -- we will need a test track," he said.
The test track is slated for construction this year. Until it's finished, they'll test automated vehicles in campus parking lots.
The idea is to find ways to make sure no one can tamper with a vehicle's sensors and collision avoidance systems.
"Eventually, we're hoping to get to the point where we discover underlying threats or vulnerabilities," he said. "Then we can start proposing algorythms and software that would mitigate the effects."
Having autonomous cars won't do away with driver's licenses and tests to get them.
"We envision we will have to continuously certify people in how to respond," Gerdes said.
"And we're still going to have regular cars in the future, as well. Even if vehicles are automated, sometimes some of us want to drive because it's fun -- and that's not going away.
Contact reporter Becky Wright at 801-625-4274 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ReporterBWright.
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