Autonomous Vehicle Accidents Test Human Trust

Jeff Davis, Senior Director, Government Relations and Public Policy at BlackBerry

Humans have an issue with trust. While innate to our nature, trust is also something that must be earned over time, and once lost it can take a long time to get it back, if at all. This is particularly true where new technologies like autonomous vehicle safety are concerned. We see time and again that regardless of the extensive number of hours that autonomous vehicle testing is done safely, a single incident can overwhelm a news cycle.

Think of last year’s Uber crash or the more recent Tesla crashes. They do not become associated with a single company, rather, they become a trust challenge for a whole industry.

New Technologies Bring New Challenges to Safety and Security

In the findings from an investigation into one crash, a Tesla was found to have repeatedly made maneuvers at one particular area of highway that eventually resulted in the vehicle crashing into a concrete barrier. On several occasions, the driver was able to maintain control and override the maneuvers to safely keep the vehicle in lane, but during the final incident, the driver was distracted and was not able to avoid the crash. Of further concern is that the car first increased speedfrom 62 mph to 71 mph just prior to steering into the barrier.

In an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) of an unrelated accident, the NTSB found that the fatal collision of a car with autonomous driving features and a slow-moving truck was also partly the result of the driver not regaining control of the vehicle in time. It referenced an earlier accident where systems that “underpin AEB systems have only been trained to recognize the rear of other vehicles… in part because radar-based systems have trouble distinguishing objects in the road from objects that are merely near the road.”

This represents a challenge with autonomous vehicle technology in its current state. Drivers tend to lose focus on the road, giving too much responsibility to low-level automation features, allowing technology to work in a domain beyond its capabilities. The end results are both tragic and fear-inducing. Distracted driving is just as life-threatening in a vehicle with automated features as it is in a conventional vehicle.

– In the race to produce self-driving cars, the ability to build consumer trust is as important as the ability to build the technology itself. For the driving public to adopt autonomous vehicles en masse, it’s not enough to simply trust the technologies – people must also trust that the companies building these technologies will act responsibly. It is a moral imperative for those of us within the industry that are advancing this fast approaching future to make sure it is both safe and secure.

The misunderstanding lies on two fronts: first, some companies are overly bullish in their confidence of the self-driving features of the car, leaving their consumers at risk. This is miseducation, and it is dangerous in itself. The second inappropriate interaction comes from a misunderstanding of what autonomous features are designed to do in today’s vehicles. Lower level autonomy is there to augment a human driver, not replace them. It helps the driver with things we humans are really bad at, like paying attention for long periods of time, or checking all our blind spots.

However, at this point, there are a lot of things that humans do better than cars, like contextual understanding and object identification. In any case, the technology gets blamed much more than the humans do, and it results in a lack of trust that hurts the entire industry.


– BlackBerry had a big presence at the 2020 edition of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Mistrust, with a Side of Mistrust

Another modern phenomenon that impacts the trust of a consumer is a security incident, and if a misbehaving autonomous feature was the result of a cyberattack, the court of popular opinion could put an end to autonomous vehicles. Even with drivers maintaining control, there is a risk that these highly connected vehicles could be infected with malware when connecting to a mobile device, downloading traffic reports, or with updates for a potential maintenance issue by the manufacturer, which could have devastating consequences.

The mind can go to several nightmare scenarios: attackers crashing cars into each other, threat actors stopping cars on the highway and blocking major arteries, and other similar scenarios. But more likely, attackers could use malware to steal payment credentials stored in the car’s systems for use in automatic payments at gas stations, drive-through restaurants, car washes, or similar businesses where the driver may not need to exit the vehicle to make a purchase.

And an almost-inevitable scenario could be that marketing data collection companies could monitor communications to know where you drive and when, how long you stayed, what communications you saw or listened to, etc.

Adapting Current Security Solutions to New Technologies

This brings the world of connected and autonomous vehicles right up there with every network that requires the protections offered by security technologies such as firewalls, antivirus (EPP), endpoint detection and response (EDR), distributed ledger technology (DLT), etc. The massive mobile endpoint that is the modern vehicle comes with more than its share of security concerns and begs the question: are today’s security solutions going to translate well to an autonomous vehicle?

On the one hand, that car should appear to those security systems as one big network, albeit one that weighs more than a ton and can move faster than 100 mph. As a practical matter, though, the nature of the systems that make up that vehicle are going to be radically different. As such, manufacturers must work closely with firms on advanced security systems that are designed to work specifically with autonomous vehicles.

Safety, Security, and Trust

The future of transportation and mobility is one of the most exciting fields of technology, one that is both growing rapidly and producing advancements that occur at dizzying speeds.

It is critical that safety and security are top of mind from the beginning of the process and throughout the development and production processes if the industry is going to foster and maintain the trust required for the adoption of these technologies. Safety, security, and trust are fundamental to this effort and inseparable in their importance.

About Jeff Davis, Currently, Senior Director, Government Relations and Public Policy at BlackBerry, Jeff Davis oversees the company’s smart transportation initiatives, working to grow the number of active pilots we’re involved in and representing the organization from an advocacy standpoint in industry groups such as The Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITSA), Partners for Automated Vehicle Education (PAVE), ERTICO and the Automotive Information Sharing and Analysis Center (Auto-ISAC), and in directing BlackBerry’s development in smart transportation. He previously served as a Senior Vice President at ITSA, the nation’s largest organization dedicated to advancing the research, development and deployment of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). Prior to that he developed new programs throughout the Department of Defense, as a Marine officer and contracted civilian.

Jeff has worked in technical and market development for 11 years beginning in defense as a project officer on several development and conceptual efforts across the operational and tactical spectrum, he moved on to oversee the creation and execution of comprehensive enterprise programs within the Navy and Marine Corps. For the past four years Jeff has focused solely on smart transportation including the implementation of cybersecurity practices, integration of connected and autonomous vehicles, and business cases around Mobility as a Service (MaaS). 

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