Could the Driverless Car Prove a 'Lethal Weapon'?

By Steve Anderson July 16, 2014

For anyone who's ever seen movies like “Super Hybrid” or “Christine,” the idea that a car could somehow become a killing machine of its own accord is only somewhat outlandish for the fact that said viewer has already seen the concept. But the FBI isn't concerned about aliens that only look like cars, or cars possessed by formerly deceased owners; the FBI is concerned that the self-driving car could ultimately prove a ‘lethal weapon’ in years to come.

A recent report from the FBI, not strictly classified but still restricted, and obtained via a public records request for The Guardian, suggested not only potential possibilities for the self-driving car, but also some significant dangers. While the high-speed chase might well prove to be a thing of the past when cars drive automatically and obey all posted speed limits, the FBI raises an additional point: a self-driving car would allow a single criminal to continue driving, but now, said criminal would be able to focus all of his or her attention on shooting at pursuers, including being able to, say, jump into a reinforced back seat and open fire from a rear window.

What's more, the FBI notes the commonly-held principle that whatever one engineer can do, another can undo. Yes, there will be clear and present safety provisions built into self-driving cars—not even the FBI doubts that point—but what about the enterprising hacker who decides to turn a self-driving car into a self-driving NASCAR? What about the terrorist who crams a car full of explosive and programs it to drive to a gas station in a crowded city? Granted, these concerns have clear analogues today, but not in which it's essentially possible for a terrorist to be in two places at once with two bombs thanks to two separate self-driving cars—or more!--and yet walk away from it all after the explosions die down.

The FBI's points are valid enough in isolation, but worse, said points are directly against the proposition that cars would be safer than human-driven vehicles thanks to the ability to filter out human error, a common cause of accidents. Yet even the FBI here understands that, in aggregate, self-driving cars are likely to be safer than the alternative. The FBI's report specifically states “The risk that distraction or poor judgment leading to collision that stems from manual operation would be substantially reduced,” and that's pretty much the cause of most accidents. Throw in specific points like drunk driving, buzzed driving, or tired driving in the umbrella term of “poor judgment” and suddenly a lot of accidents that would have happened likely won't.

Basically, what the FBI has done here is probably a good thing. While it's clearly taking a viewpoint that is easily described as extreme in nature, the extremity is in turn pointing out possible areas of support for future improvements. Most of us likely enjoy the idea of being able to point the car where we want it to go and let it do the rest while we read a book or potentially work on writing one, but we don't consider how a fleet of a dozen such cars could become rolling torpedoes that disrupt an already fragile infrastructure or even take human life. Only time will tell just what our self-driving cars become, but hopefully, this report will make such cars just a little less than might have been.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

Contributing TechZone360 Writer

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