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Future transportation: the good, the bad, and the security

February 5, 20216 mins read

When imagining what a smart car should be, most of us immediately think of Tesla. And that’s probably because the vehicle has been heavily marketed that way. However, if jumping to the pre-Tesla world, future transportation often appeared as flying objects with no wings soaring through densely populated cities. Is that vision still relevant? If not, how did it change, and what technological challenges it’ll present to the population? In this week’s blog post, we’ll explore future vehicles’ predictions and capacity based on current technological advancement and what issues may lurk behind them.


The Future of Smart Cars

When creating a vision of what our future transportation should look like, engineers and scientists have to consider a few things:

  1. Fuel-powered cars are one of the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions, greatly affecting Global climate change.
  2. Cities are expanding and becoming more densely populated, which leaves less space for cars and increases traffic jams and pollution.
  3. Application of smart technologies to improve the traveling experience so it’d take less time and effort, e.g., if it takes 3 hours to go to the other part of the city, you could do other things than driving.

After putting all of these together, the puzzle becomes quite clear – we’re talking about fully electric, autonomous smart vehicles in a city run with IoT technologies. Ideally, these models should be shared by the population and not owned by individuals. Electric models solve environmental problems, autonomous smart functions allow us to use time more productively when traveling, and shared ownership and IoT application means a greener and less crowded city that flows like a well-synchronized organism.

Now that may sound idyllic, but if you look around, progress has already been made to make this vision come to true:

-Engineers are working on more efficient electric models.

-Autonomous driving feature is being developed further.

-There’s more IoT application in traffic structures than ever.

-Car sharing is available in every major city.

Of course, it may not happen this way or, as tech progresses further, take another direction whatsoever. But at the moment, let’s look at what challenges and issues scientists and engineers face when working on perfecting these features for mass production.

Dilemma No. 1: How to teach a car to drive by itself? 

Many of us remember the unfortunate incident when back in 2018, a Tesla model ran over a woman failing to initiate its automatic brake function. After it happened, the discussions on autonomous cars have increased ten folds. Turning the clock back, the car autonomy was predicted to come in full force by 2015 (The Guardian), or at least 10 million of such vehicles were supposed to swarm on the streets in 2020 (Business Insider). Neither of that happened.

The reason for that was the lack of data from which the machine could learn as the whole system is based on Artificial Intelligence. Yet, getting autonomous cars on the road to collect data and learn is expensive and risky. A potentially dangerous situation on the road could prove fatal when unsupervised since the vehicle hasn’t experienced it before and wouldn’t come with a proper reaction or, as people would say – make a judgment call. So most of these models are taught through simulations, which is not the same as being on the streets. So far, users can enjoy autonomous driving on motorways, yet, still in the driver’s seat and with full attention on the road. Government regulations also affect this lack of data that would help further advance the technology and put these cars to roam freely on the roads. With no data comes no trust and vice versa. The question remains, will scientists develop the vehicles through teaching the machine with simulations and limited road exposure, or will judgment calls stay an entirely human privilege.

Dilemma No. 2: Can machines run a city? 

What does that have to do with cars? Quite a lot. Imagine the city where IoT technologies are applied to regulate every bit of traffic – lights, pedestrians, change traffic conditions based on the environment. Oh wait, that’s already in place. So what if the cars would interact with these systems (and with each other) and direct their actions accordingly? We don’t have to imagine that – it’s already happening. Cities are becoming smarter day by day, applying technological advancements to improve their infrastructure. And the same is done with vehicles introducing electricity-powered engines, autonomy, and built-in Wi-Fi. However, this raises a major concern – if the infrastructure becomes so dependent on technology, what happens when that technology malfunctions. One blip could ruin the whole system, and the city could have a series of tragic events on its hands. A scientist or an engineer would say that there’d be security protocols in place. Of course, but our AI isn’t that advanced to predict every human behavior or technological failure possible, so at the moment, the success of such infrastructure is dependent on whether the manufacturers of IoT have considered every likely scenario and put a safety net in place.

Dilemma No. 3: What about security?

Smart cars like telephones can now perform face recognition and unlock the vehicle for you. Traffic lights change automatically depending on the jams and redirect vehicles when needed. The question is – are they secure? No one system is indeed impenetrable, no matter how well it’s made. Just last December, we all heard of numerous U.S. security agencies being hacked. Not only it puts a damper on things, but it quite clearly prompts the considerations that nothing is safe. Autonomous cars can be hijacked, any IoT device hacked, and messing with traffic lights is nothing new. However, when developing new features and applying new technologies, one thinks more of progress made and less of what security challenges it will present. So if the whole city and traffic system (including cars) would run on one system, what if someone from the side took it over? Sounds more like an action movie scenario than real life. Yet, the concern is real with every technology and recognized even by official bodies of the government. In 2019 Anisa (Europian Union Agency for Cybersecurity) released good practice guidelines for Smart Cars, namely semi-autonomous and connected vehicles. The practice guide is aimed at car manufacturers and part suppliers to increase their cybersecurity measures and is freely accessible online. 

What’s next?

It’s hard to tell. Fully autonomous cars and smart city infrastructure will become true in the future. However, how dependant and secure they’ll be, only time and further technological progress will tell. In the meantime, manufacturers, engineers, and scientists have to pay attention to further developing their projects and ensuring their safety from malicious attacks. The future may depend on it.

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