By on September 5, 2017

semi trailer (raymondclarkeimages/Flickr)

A bit more than six years ago, I wrote “The Blockers” for this site as a work of fiction, suggesting that there may be a bit of a popular revolt against self-driving vehicles and that it might be led by those who felt personally dehumanized as a consequence of “progress.”

Now, the nice people at MIT Technology Review have caught up to your humble author’s dystopian point of view.


“Out-of-work truckers armed with ‘adversarial machine learning’ could dazzle autonomous vehicles into crashing.” So says the improbably named Simson Garfunkel in a remarkably well-thought-out article for MIT.

I don’t know anything about Mr. Garfinkel other than the almost certain fact that his parents know all the verses of “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” but he makes some very strong points about authentication and security almost always being afterthoughts in any sufficiently complex system. This is particularly true in the automotive space, where the priority has always been ensuring that the local dealer can quickly and easily service the vehicle rather than assuring that said vehicle is at least as secure as, say, a modern Android phone.

Those automated taxis or delivery vehicles could be vulnerable to being maliciously dazzled with a high-power laser pointer by an out-of-work Teamster, a former Uber driver who still has car payments to make, or just a pack of bored teenagers.

A pack of bored teenagers. Where have I heard that before… oh yeah, I wrote it. Like most great ideas, however, my little bit of fiction was far from original. I was front and center on IRC for dozens of bored-teenager attacks on everything from political websites to the Mt. Gox electronic-currency exchange. Never underestimate the ability of a bright kid with a lot of time on his hands to crack your precious little system like an egg.

When I wrote “The Blockers,” some of the B&B suggested that attacks on autonomous vehicles would be no more common than attacks on human-operated vehicles. They’re wrong and I’ll tell you why: the ethics of the situation aren’t the same. There might be a full-time campaign in the Western media to turn lower-class, blue-collar truckers and whatnot into “racist” unpersons, but most reasonable folks can see right through to the fact that the differences between a truck driver and a Brooklyn hipster are outweighed by their human similarities. There is a word for people who would deliberately endanger a trucker at work just for the fun of it, and that word is psychopath.

An autonomous truck carrying a load of imported clothing from Seattle to Peoria? That’s another matter entirely. That’s somewhere between vandalism (if you disapprove) and economic justice (if that sort of thing floats your boat). What’s the worst thing that could happen if somebody disabled every autonomous truck coming out of the West Coast ports? The sweatshops are gonna close? You might be surprised at the degree of approval overlap between the camouflage-shirt crowd and the Black Bloc here. Don’t forget that the so-called Occupy crowd got the authentic hammer dropped on them six years ago because they blocked the ports. No doubt some of them have already made the calculation that the Interstate Highway System is far more vulnerable than any shipping port.

If you ask me, the spirit of Ned Ludd is alive and well among today’s politically active generation. It wouldn’t take much to bring it to the forefront. We’re not talking about it much right now because autonomous trucks are still the stuff of hyperactive press releases and clinical discussions in the MIT Technology Journal. When the rubber meets the road, however, something real is going to happen. Depend on it.

[Image: raymondclarkeimages/Flickr]

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54 Comments on “You Read It Here First: The Biggest Challenge to Autonomous Vehicles Is All Too Human...”


  • avatar
    JimC2

    That truck must be passing a cyclist and giving him or her three feet.

    #benefitofthedoubt

  • avatar
    Scout_Number_4

    “I don’t know anything about Mr. Garfinkel other than the almost certain fact that his parents know all the verses of “For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her,” ”

    Thanks for this one, Jack–I nearly spit coffee.

    • 0 avatar

      Read Simson Garfinkel as Simon Garfunkel at first. Glad I’m not the only one.

      Wonder if he wrote this article last Wednesday Morning, 3 AM?

    • 0 avatar
      baconator

      I actually worked alongside Simson briefly in the late 90’s. At the time he was trying to spearhead a movement he called “cyberrealism,” which was his attempt to inject some pessimism into all of the “Internet will make everything better” exuberance of that time.

      He enjoys sushi and being kind of a pain in the ass. He’s good at writing about writing code.

  • avatar
    PrincipalDan

    I can’t wait until the kids figure out how to make the AI “brick” itself and the truck just sit there refusing to move like the world’s most stubborn mule/ox on the El Camino Real circa 1655 A.D. in the Spanish Royal Colony of New Mexico.

    Everything old is new again!

  • avatar
    jmo

    Two questions:

    1. Is Luddism more common in car blogs than the world in general or do most people lean Luddite?

    2. Are there car blogs that celebrate innovation?

  • avatar
    ajla

    The Helghast-loooking AmazonAppleGoogleBook shock troops will just shoot you for disrupting the supply line.

  • avatar
    gottacook

    I looked up this Simson Garfinkel and apparently he was born in 1965, when Simon & Garfunkel was still a quite obscure act. The name Simson is just a variant of Shimshon ( שִׁמְשׁוֹן ) – that is, the old-testament Samson. Seems like he’s had an interesting career, in any case (per Wikipedia and other sources).

    • 0 avatar

      By 1964, Simon & Garfunkel were recording under that name for Columbia, a major label. The folk-rock remix of Sounds of Silence was released in Sept. 1965, immediately getting into Billboard’s Top 100, where it ended up as #1 in Jan. 1966.

      While not as big as Dylan, the Stones, or the Beatles, by the end of 1965, Simon & Garfunkel were hardly obscure.

      Still, Simson Garfinkel was likely named for a grandfather or great grandfather whose Hebrew name was Shimshon.

  • avatar
    I_like_stuff

    It’s cool man. All those unemployed truckers will get jobs at Google. Oh wait, they’re mainly white men. Never mind.

  • avatar
    ash78

    As a Cyborg-American, I sense a lot of Anthrocentric microaggressions in this article. There’s a prevailing belief that we cyborgs are just workaholics and that we just “take the jobs” of the Anthros. Nothing could be further from the truth — we have an amazing synergy with Anthro-Americans and we’re not trying to change that, we’re just trying to foster acceptance.

    btw, I just walked out on my job after I learned the owner contributed $500 to The Luddite Foundation last year. We have to take a stand against this or it will become widely accepted (or at least tolerated) and start to infect our common beliefs.

    First they came for the Kinesthetic Coprocessing Units, but I didn’t have a Kinesthetic Coprocessing Unit, so I said nothing.

  • avatar
    Goatshadow

    The biggest obstacle to autonomous vehicles will be that software is stupid. People are a factor, there.

  • avatar
    thelaine

    I think they are going to solve this problem by giving these autonomous trucks dedicated lanes on the interstates, paid for by the trucking companies and their customers. You could run them back to back with nothing but fuel and maintenance. Perhaps they could just do interstate point-to-point at first and then hand the load off to a human for the last, local part of the delivery, like they do with train cargo. These would just be road trains.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      Dedicated lanes, with power leads, is what they “should” do. Hence, eventually will do.

      For now though, we’re still in the “coexistence”/”blend in” stage of the current AI hype cycle. Where we, as is always the case with AI, will remain until people wise up to the silliness and unrealisticness of it all, and we have another so called winter.

      Then, more pragmatic people will take the reins, and build something actually useful out of the disparate, half complete pieces left behind by the previous bubble.

    • 0 avatar
      I_like_stuff

      Why not just use, you know, real trains then?

      • 0 avatar
        thelaine

        Because there are a lot more roads.

        • 0 avatar
          Speed3

          Last mile delivery is hard.

          Drones may also serve the same function in the future.

        • 0 avatar
          I_like_stuff

          Not really. Compare the interstate map to the railway map. They’re very similar. Long distance, city to city there is generally one rail line and 1 interstate highway. If you’re going to do long distance transportation, why do “trucks as a train” when an actual train already exists?

          Rail:
          http://www.destination360.com/travel/railroads/images/us-railroad-map.jpg

          Interstate:
          http://www.onlineatlas.us/interstate-highways.htm

          • 0 avatar
            Featherston

            On topic: This went over like a lead balloon, but it’s still one of my favorite SNL skits.

            http://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/johnny-canal/n9740?snl=1

      • 0 avatar
        ash78

        They mess up the asphalt when they deliver things to the door. Confusion and delay.

      • 0 avatar
        stuki

        Derailing flexibility, mostly. And systemic resiliency.

        The cleaner engines get, and with electric they will be very clean; the larger the share of airborne pollution will arise at the road/tire interface. Both traditional steel on steel rail and maglev, are way ahead of rubber on pavement in that respect. Some Euro cities already cite road/tire particulates as the most acute air quality problem along high traffic arteries.

        Efficiency is also greater on rail, as you don’t need to pay the friction and hysteresis costs of a high grip road/tire interface, for all those miles you are just going in a straight line at a fairly constant speed.

        Once/if freeway/highway/arterial road driving is done autonomously, derailing can be planned to a greater extent, as routes are known to the infrastructure and other users. Ditto for starting and stopping, lessening need for panic braking driven high grip tires. Both makes rail more relatively desirable.

        All this adds up to a case for making an increasing amount of car travel move to more rail like infrastructure over time.

        Resilience is the big bugaboo working in the other direction. Jeeps, Raptors and dirt bikes, all burning easily stored, transported and hoarded gas and diesel (and possibly H2), are much less vulnerable to disruptions, than an infrastructure where everything is tied together, and dependent on everything else working to spec all the time.

  • avatar
    JimZ

    “There is a word for people who would deliberately endanger a trucker at work just for the fun of it, and that word is psychopath.”

    which conveniently describes most teenagers.

  • avatar
    heycarp

    duhhhh Why can’t we simply use those devices called trains?

    • 0 avatar
      psychoboy

      because trains don’t actually go everywhere, and are less easily reprogrammed to go somewhere else.

      plus, building multiple small parking lots for cyber-trucks to drop trailers and for meat-trucks to pick them up is far easier and more efficient than pulling containers and box trailers off rail cars in singular giant rail yards.

      there’s a reason we already don’t use trains for these loads.

  • avatar
    Steve_S

    There have been a great number of jobs in the past that have become obsolete by advancements in technology. People will bitch and moan but they will get over it. Pony express, gas lamp lighters, switchboard operators, human computers, etc.

    Also I’m sure there will be plenty of cameras, night vision and otherwise to catch people messing with the trucks.

  • avatar
    anomaly149

    Even beyond bored teenagers, if I know the that an autonomous car will yield position EVERY SINGLE TIME, and I want to shave approximately .001 seconds off my commute BECAUSE I MUST GET THERE FIRST, there’s every incentive to drive like even more of a maniac.

    • 0 avatar
      carguy67

      Or the corollary: If/when autonomous vehicles become the majority, more people will assume the big rig they plan to cut off to save 0.001s will automatically yield but, if the big rig is piloted by a meat sack …

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      Similarly, consider autonomous vehicle interaction:

      Will one of the perks of paying extra for an autonomous BMW, be that it is programmed to cut off, and take advantage of, more conservatively programmed Volvos?

      While, as autonomous cars get older and junkier, will they increasingly attempt to drive in a manner that increases their chance of getting hit by a new Benz, in order to keep the ambulance chasers busy and flush?

  • avatar
    carguy67

    “There is a word for people who would deliberately endanger a trucker at work just for the fun of it, and that word is psychopath.”

    Well, they’re already pointing lasers at passenger-carrying aircraft and distracting–and possibly injuring–pilots but, yeah, they’re psychopaths. Right up there with the idiots flying drones over fires so the airtankers can’t do their job. There should be serious jail time–like, felony–for both.

  • avatar

    I agree that this is inevitable. The combination of predictable outcomes and YouTube make this a gold mine of attention-seeking behavior. It’s not just going to be autonomous trucks, but also the fun of brake-checking a Tesla on the freeway, painting new lines on the road to divert autonomous cars, hacking signs, etc. It’s too easy, too rewarding in terms of instant gratification, and largely consequence-free for the “bored teenagers” committing the crimes.

    Eventually, we’ll get dedicated lanes for these vehicles. Then that will change to dedicated lanes for human-piloted vehicles. That’s going to become a whole new battlefield for class warfare, which will probably lead to more disruption as those who can afford autonomous cars waft along in the good lanes while the lower castes who can’t afford to let go of the wheel will be relegated to the penalty lane.

    It’s going to be…interesting.

    • 0 avatar
      stuki

      Dedicated lanes is really the only viable solution. Pretending AIs will be able to interact properly with humans, at least for the next 500 years, is no less silly today than it was in the 50s.

      Besides, even the best of possible outcomes for man/AI “coexistence” in traffic, leaves the poor robots operating at a tiny fraction of their potential efficiency, as they have to dumb and slow themselves down, to account for all the pointlessly random behavior of humans that has nothing to do with getting from A to B as efficiently as possible.

      Much cleaner to start building a parallel infrastructure, freed from the burden of coexisting with drunks driving around texting while filming themselves getting BJs while doing donuts in the middle of traffic. Then let users migrate to the new infrastructure (or not) on their own time. Predictably in greater numbers as the new tech improves and proves itself.

  • avatar
    econobiker

    And the other side of the coin is that because some people cannot even fathom a smart phone’s technology, how will those folks “program” the autonomous car to pilot itself…

  • avatar

    Truck drivers have to deal with all sorts of problems ranging from the wrong paperwork to weird loading docks to showing up when the crew in receiving is on their break.

    In some situations, like with UPS or logistics for large factories, you could standardize things to work with autonomous trucks, but for the most part expediting and trucking end up involving things that might confuse an autonomous system.

    If an autonomous truck is delayed by traffic and it’s computer predicts that it will arrive at your loading dock 5 minutes after you close, is it going to try to make the delivery, since you’re hanging around and really need the shipment, or is it going to go back to the hub and try again tomorrow?

    I don’t recall hearing anything about switching railroads to autonomous operation and trains operate within a much more controlled environment than road vehicles.

  • avatar
    mmreeses

    just merely having a bunch cars driving abreast legally at 45mph, and not allowing anyone behind to pass, can clog any stretch of highway.

    robo-cars would fall in line and if traffic volume is large enough, you’ll have tailbacks for miles.

    coordinate and a bunch of determined people can clog I-80, I-76 and I-90 simultaneouly.

    French farmers pull that trick often using tractors on highways.

  • avatar
    markf

    So people doubting the emergence of autonomous truck/cars are Luddites. I bet all the Luddites from the 40’s who scoffed at flying cars are feeling pretty vindicated. I am no engineer but it seems a flying car would be easier to build than an autonomous car, the technology already exists for flying cars.

    When is the last time the US build a new Interstate highway? But yet new lanes for autonomous trucks are just gonna happen? Perhaps we need to invent autonomous construction companies to supply the new lanes?

    I could see some type of hybrid system, assisting truckers and perhaps extending their driving times bit not full autonomous

  • avatar
    ihatetrees

    Initially, enlist truck drivers as allies by making the first autonomous trucks part of a 3 to 5 Truck Train – a group controlled by a single “Master” truck with a human.

    Double the Master Driver’s pay over what driver’s today earn – and you’re still way ahead productivity wise.

  • avatar
    markf

    “Initially, enlist truck drivers as allies by making the first autonomous trucks part of a 3 to 5 Truck Train”

    Road trains are already operating in the Australian Outback, I can’t see the crowded US highways being able to support this.

  • avatar
    Pig_Iron

    “In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught.”
    ― Hunter S. Thompson

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