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Threats of Driverless Vehicles: Leveraging New Technologies for Solutions

By Muhammad Faizal Bin Abdul Rahman

Synopsis

New technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, will change the way Singapore work, live and play; yet they also present opportunities for terrorists to innovate their modus operandi. Security agencies need to stay ahead by leveraging new technologies to address nascent threats.

Commentary

THE UK SKY News reported on 6 January 2016 that Islamic State (IS) had tested a driverless car bomb. It showed a video that Sky News received from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) after it was seized from a captured IS militant. The video purportedly showed IS scientists testing the modified vehicle in Raqqa, Syria.

This chilling revelation, if confirmed, demonstrates IS’ intent, if they have the resources, to devise innovative methods of conducting attacks abroad. It also certainly demonstrates IS’ intent to deploy driverless vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) when the technology is viable. A NATO official, Dr Jamie Shea, had stated that IS’ experimentation with driverless VBIEDs is a worrying development.

Driverless VBIED – A Physical and Cyber Threat


Sceptics may dismiss the notion of driverless or autonomous VBIEDs as far-fetched, but this nascent technology has entered the realm of practical applications and policy making. New technologies such as driverless vehicles will eventually become common and potentially dual-use.

Closer to home, Singapore has embarked on a Smart Nation journey to harness info-communications technology for the benefit of its people and businesses. Among the efforts is Smart Mobility which includes harnessing autonomous vehicle (AV) technology. In line with this effort, the Ministry of Transport envisages a future transport system where driverless vehicles enhance our mobility and productivity, and overcome manpower constraints (for e.g. bus drivers and taxis).

The Land Transport Authority has begun testing the technology and working on a framework on safety standards for driverless vehicles on Singapore’s public roads. At the present rate of progress, industry experts believe that highly autonomous vehicles will be viable by 2020 and fully autonomous (driverless) ones will be common by 2030. This is definitely not a distant future, and we are likely to witness this evolved transport scene especially given our rising life expectancy.

A terror attack in Singapore involving driverless VBIEDs is thus a plausible scenario and not a distant threat; given the rate of technology progress, how fast the country embraces new technologies to improve liveability and economic competitiveness in a globalised world, and prevalence of terrorism (by non-state and state actors) throughout human history.

The potential weaponisation of driverless vehicles was first brought to light by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after Google rolled out its driverless car prototype. They assessed that the risk of cyber-criminals hacking into cars is very real. In a bulletin dated 17 March 2016, the FBI reiterated this risk and highlighted that while there have been no reported incidents, researchers were able to commandeer cars remotely by exploiting wireless communications. In the study cited by the FBI, researchers had used Wi-Fi to access a vehicle’s electronics and manipulate its engine, steering and braking functions.

Indeed, the threat of driverless VBIEDs will be existential when there is a confluence of public use of driverless vehicles in the foreseeable future, terrorist intent (as seen in abovementioned IS video), and terrorist capability either through its own R&D or collusion with cybercriminals. Thus, the use of driverless vehicles for nefarious purposes should be a concern that warrants careful risk assessment by both counter-terrorism (CT) and cybersecurity agencies.

Possible Solution: Next-Gen ERP

Singapore’s security agencies need to explore how other new technologies that may form part of the future transport ecosystem could be applied to counter the nascent threat of driverless VBIEDs. For example, agencies could leverage the Next-Generation Electronic Road Pricing System (ERP) as a powerful tool for intelligence and investigations. During the Committee of Supply Debate 2016, Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam had