By on August 31, 2015


Self-driving cars could usher in a new form of terrorism, an investment analyst writes (via SlashDot).

Alex Rubalcava, who is an investment advisor in California, says that autonomous cars would be “the greatest force multiplier to emerge in decades for criminals and terrorists.

“A future Timothy McVeigh will not need to drive a truck full of fertilizer to the place he intends to detonate it. A burner email account, a prepaid debit card purchased with cash, and an account, tied to that burner email, with an AV car service will get him a long way to being able to place explosives near crowds, without ever being there himself.”

Criminals in Denver have already used burners, pre-paid cards and fake names to rent Car2go cars for drive-by shootings.

Rubalcava’s discussion of the risk that autonomous cars may bring to international security is a short few paragraphs in a much longer market analysis on those cars and their potential investors.

Included in his assessment is that dense urban centers may spread out (suburban sprawl all over again) if self-driving cars can shuttle us back and forth to work without their drivers actually being awake. Rubalcava also speculates that an average autonomous car could travel twice as far as a normal car, up to 50,000 miles per year if the driver doesn’t have to actually drive, and that the cost per mile for an autonomous car will be significantly lower than an average car, which would increase consumption.

(And he correctly points out that very few companies that develop technologies make it long enough to mass produce them, i.e. 1990s dot-coms.)

Even though much of his analysis is dedicated toward financial issues and scaling autonomous cars for a global market, Rubalcava says that investors should be wary of initial government intervention to mitigate security risks that a self-driving bomb car could pose. Beyond that, autonomous cars will be hugely profitable — maybe before we’re all dead.

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21 Comments on “Terrorists Could Make Autonomous Cars A Security Nightmare...”

  • avatar

    As opposed to just an aesthetic nightmare?

  • avatar

    We use bio-metrics where I work, the vein structure in a hand. It’s quick and easy and hard to fake. Autonomous drones, on the other hand, are the real concern. You can be anywhere and get anywhere with them.

    • 0 avatar

      “Autonomous drones, on the other hand, are the real concern.”

      My first thought, too. While drones will never offer the payload of a ground vehicle, an effective lump of explosives isn’t very heavy.

      And what will local LEOs and the circus tents full of security stakeholders do if convinced that a tree-topping drone with bad intent is headed somewhere sensitive? How will they bring it down without unacceptable collateral damage from both the drone’s payload as well as munitions used to kill it?

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, AV car bombs are a concern for the future. Weaponized drones are a concern for today.

    • 0 avatar

      I worked at a place that was secured with a hand sensor. It was positioned between the restroom (outside) and my desk (inside). Well, it was time for lunch and I planned to eat at my desk. I went to the rest room to wash up and returned to my desk, palming the hand sensor on the way in.

      Unwrapping my lunch, I realized that some percentage of people don’t wash their hands after using the restroom, and they must have palmed the hand sensor on their way in. I lost my appetite.

      Good tech. Poor implementation.

    • 0 avatar

      “and hard to fake.”

      It’s also a nightmare if the database gets lost. Even if the database is encrypted, since the biometric is permanent, the thieves have the *rest of your life* to figure out how they can use the information they have stolen.

  • avatar

    I expect the Denver Car2Go case will soon cause car sharing companies to move to a business model that makes it much more difficult for a renter to obscure his identity through burners and pre-paids. The collateral liability issues will force it. AV operators will probably adopt a similar model that will make a car bomb very difficult, though not impossible. But then, the truly determined can simply go with a suicide car bomb.

  • avatar
    Felis Concolor

  • avatar
    See 7 up

    As opposed to the actual real life, real time nightmare human drivers cause on a daily basis?

    I’m going to go out on a limb and say two things
    1. The lives saved and injuries prevented via self driving cars will trump any lives lost by some supposed increase in their potential threat use
    2. Terrorist and criminals are likely not waiting for autonomous cars to induce carnage. Little will change with this. It’s like thinking drive by shooting in Denver didn’t happen until car2go existed. Not to mention most drive by are done in regular cars

    • 0 avatar

      I feel that:
      1. A huge number of lives saved via automated cars is simply not going to happen. For the gigantic amount of miles driven today, the number of lives lost on the highways is already extremely low. Given the imperfect nature of autonomous systems, there will always be the possibility of error. In fact, there are a surprising number of errors that happen to autonomous systems operating in fairly well controlled environments. Even solid state systems have a considerable potential for failure (think server crashes). Now, add the complexity of operating in a real-world environment to that, and you have a recipe for an error rate that will likely be in practice higher than that of human control.

      2. Terrorists might try to take advantage, but there is likely not going to be any material increase in fatalities due to their use of autonomous cars as weapons.

  • avatar

    The heck with unoccupied pods carrying payload. How difficult would it be for a hacker to, for example, program a system-wide “sharp left turn NOW” command into a control framework?

  • avatar

    In a world where the primary MO of terrorist attacks is the suicide attack, does it really matter that someone could “program” a truck bombing, rather than riding along?

    (Or, if not suicidal, simply steal a U-Haul or rent it with a fake ID and burner pre-paid card?)

    Mountain, molehill.

  • avatar

    You’ll wake up to Reds under your bed! Terrorists will gun you down as you shop at the mall! ISIS will lure your daughters to Syria and turn them into sex slaves! Evil robot cars will destroy us all! The sky is falling!

    These types of stories have been trotted out since 1945 to keep the cubic yards of cash feeding the military industrial complex. Better to worry about a more clear and present danger – like getting struck by lightening.

  • avatar

    Yikes! – Thanks for the correction.

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