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Internet of Things (IoT) 16 October 2015

Tesla’s Software Update To Enable Self-Driving Cars Both Delights And Concerns Me

By Dan YorkDirector, Internet Technology

In a fascinating bit of synchronicity, yesterday morning at pretty much the exact same time that I was finalizing the publication of our IoT Overview paper and publishing Karen Rose’s IoT blog post, my friend (and former CEO of a company for which I worked) Jonathan Taylor was posting a photo to a social network of receiving a software update for his car over the Internet.

Yes, you read that correctly.

His car, a Tesla, was downloading a software update across his home WiFi network.

Even better, this particular software update gave his car the ability to be a self-driving car (also often called an “autonomous vehicle”).

Jonathan, of course, had to immediately try it out on the highways around Orlando, Florida, and later posted:

This morning I got in my car, entered my destination – which was 150 minutes away – and except for two minutes the car drove itself the whole way.

He subsequently explained that the only times he had to take control were a couple of complex road interchanges. Otherwise he and a friend just sat there talking and watching during their entire trip.  The car “drove itself” largely based on the use of computer “vision” technology, GPS, etc.

I admit to being both incredibly delighted – and incredibly concerned – by this evolution of technology.

As someone working in network security for many years, to me the security issues with the whole Internet of Things (IoT) are huge.  As our IoT Overview paper covered in great detail there are all sorts of issues related to the network connectivity, software updates, communication and more.

I think of all the new story lines that can be opened up for shows like “24” where the hero attacks the villain’s car, takes control and drives it into a tree (or to a secure location where the villain is apprehended). I think of DDoS attacks against cars. I think of malware infecting the car. I think of how many ways software can go wrong.  And I find myself thinking I’d really like a vehicle without any computers whatsoever!

And yet…

When I mentioned Jonathan’s adventure to another mutual friend yesterday at the conference I was at he said “That’s brilliant! If you go out to a pub and have too much to drink you can just get in and tell the car to take you home.

To which someone else nearby quipped “Yes, I might pass out and wake up in my car, but at least it would be back home in my driveway!

Well, maybe not quite yet… it sounds like the Tesla still does need human intervention… but you could see the promise.

Another friend on a social network whose eyesight is poor at night commented about how this would be great because she could finally go out to places at night again.

Indeed I saw the promise vividly myself.  I landed at Bradley airport near Hartford, CT, at 11:30pm last night. Exhausted after several days at a conference, I didn’t think I was alert enough to drive the 1.5 hours back to my home in Keene, NH.  Instead I paid for a hotel room near the airport and drove back home this morning after about 5 hours of sleep.

What if I could have just told the car to drive me home and then slept while it was doing so?

I could have saved that hotel room and also been back to see my family that much quicker.

Now, I don’t see a Tesla in my personal future any time soon given the price tag … and I also wonder how well it would really work on our New Hampshire roads with snow and ice in the winter…   but the technology that gets developed in the Teslas and other similar vehicles will slowly make its way down into vehicles that are more affordable.

The whole idea of upgrading the capabilities of a car via a simple update across the Internet is also fascinating. (Although again the security guy inside of me notes that the vendor could downgrade your car’s capabilities, too.)

There are truly some amazing opportunities ahead of us in our increasingly connected world…

… now if only I could feel okay about all the security issues. 🙁

What do you think?  Are you ready to climb into a self-driving car? Or do you want to stay far away?

Image credit: Photo from Jonathan Taylor, Chairman and Chief Product Officer at Sighthound, and used with his permission.

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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