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Hackers could gridlock Atlanta, any other city by stranding connected vehicles: Georgia Tech

Traffic, Buckhead

Hackers could create gridlock in Atlanta and other cities by taking control of the vehicle's systems in order to strand the vehicles, according to new research from Georgia Tech. Credit: David Pendered

By David Pendered

The allure of self-driving cars and other connected vehicles just suffered another ding, this one in a report of Georgia Tech research into the traffic gridlock that could be created if hackers immobilized vehicles. Metro Atlanta is especially vulnerable because of the layout of the region’s road network researchers said.

autonomous vehicle, uber

Georgia lawmakers allowed autonomous vehicles to be driven on public roads under certain conditions in a move aimed, in part, at competing with states such California, where Uber in 2016 was testing this AV for possible use in its network. Credit: Dllu via wikimedia

Total gridlock was created in a model of Manhattan by halting just 20 percent of vehicles during a rush hour, according to Tech’s statement about the report published in July by the journal, Physical Review E.

In Atlanta, traffic congestion from a hacking attack could be even worse than the Manhattan results.

That’s because local road networks aren’t laid out in a grid pattern that facilitates the use of alternative routes, according to Peter Yunker, an assistant professor in Tech’s School of Physics who co-led the project:

  • “Manhattan has a nice grid, and that makes traffic more efficient. Looking at cities without large grids like Atlanta, Boston, or Los Angeles, and we think hackers could do worse harm because a grid makes you more robust with redundancies to get to the same places down many different routes.”

Georgia allows autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads, with certain restrictions. Any concerns voiced about hacking didn’t carry the day in 2017 as lawmakers and then-Gov. Nathan Deal endorsed legislation in support of self-driving vehicles. The potential of hacking was mentioned in a 2014 report by a House study committee that recommended against allowing AV on public roads at that time:

  • “[H]acking abilities are available now that can unlock car doors and disrupt sensor capabilities. Intrusion Detection System could provide short-term solutions in addition to teaming and collaboration tactics that have been created to cut-off potentially dangerous vehicles.”

Atlanta is testing out connected street technology along North Avenue. One component involves traffic signals connected via fiber to other traffic lights that are computer operated. This network of traffic signals enables vehicles, pedestrians and bicyclists to share the space and travel safely at optimum speeds.

Atlanta’s lack of alternate routes makes the city particularly vulnerable to hackers who may halt vehicles. Credit: Kelly Jordan

Hacking into a car’s digital system could be as simple as crashing through a satellite radio signal, according to Jesse Silverberg of Multiscale Systems, Inc., Yunker’s co-lead on the project:

  • “With cars, one of the worrying things is that currently there is effectively one central computing system, and a lot runs through it. You don’t necessarily have separate systems to run your car and run your satellite radio. If you can get into one, you may be able to get into the other.”

Such was the case in 2015, when hackers derailed a Jeep by hacking into its WiFi, according to a snapshot of the research report that appeared in the journal Physics.

Gridlock is just the start. The model didn’t account for the sort of woes the Atlanta region already proves it can experience during snow and ice storms:

  • “The researchers also did not factor in ensuing public panic nor car occupants becoming pedestrians that would further block streets or cause accidents. Nor did they consider hacks that would target cars at locations that maximize trouble.”

The scenario of a lesser Armageddon pops out even though researchers took care to note they were not observing on the technical issues related to hacking into a vehicle to take control. As Tech’s statement observes of the authors:

  • “They also stress that they are not cybersecurity experts, nor are they saying anything about the likelihood of someone carrying out such a hack. They simply want to give security experts a calculable idea of the scale of a hack that would shut a city down.”


David Pendered

David Pendered, Managing Editor, is an Atlanta journalist with more than 30 years experience reporting on the region’s urban affairs, from Atlanta City Hall to the state Capitol. Since 2008, he has written for print and digital publications, and advised on media and governmental affairs. Previously, he spent more than 26 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and won awards for his coverage of schools and urban development. David graduated from North Carolina State University and was a Western Knight Center Fellow.


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