Terrorists could hijack remotely driven cars to use them as weapons, the Law Commission has warned.
Remote driving – where a vehicle is steered by a person in a separate location – is being developed for off-road driving in difficult terrain such as mines or quarries, the delivery of rental cars to the doors of customers, and as a form of public transport to carry passengers.
In a report on how the technology could be regulated, the Commission, which advises the Government, said the cybersecurity of remotely driven vehicles was an “issue of acute public concern” because of the risks that their control systems could be hacked, overridden or hijacked.
The Government, it said, had “at a high level” already produced guidance on vehicle cybersecurity for remote-controlled and driverless cars but the Commission warned: “An allied concern is that a driver might find it easier to use a vehicle as a terrorist weapon if they are remote.
“This is because they would not be involved in the crash and would be able to maintain some emotional distance from their victims.
“This suggests that employers may need to vet remote driving staff, both to maintain the integrity of their systems and to prevent terrorists from being attracted to the remote driver role.”
The Commission said car manufacturers had already alerted ministers that a cybersecurity failure could “undermine public confidence in the technology” and also “present genuine risks to public safety”.
Technology used in hire cars
The first remotely driven vehicles are being trialled in Milton Keynes, where small electric hire cars are delivered by “drivers” sitting in a call centre to customers, ending the need for a cabbie or Uber.
This was cited by the Commission as one of the main uses of the technology as it would reduce the cost for rental companies of sending a driver physically to drop off a vehicle - and also avoid having to park the car at the end of the journey as it could be remotely returned to base.
In its report, the Commission raised the prospect of remote drivers in offshore call centres having control of vehicles on UK roads and the resulting legal complexities if they were involved in a serious accident.
Citing the lengthy battle to extradite Anne Sacoolas, the US driver charged with the death of 19-year-old Harry Dunn outside a US airbase in Northamptonshire, it said there would be “expense and delays” in trying to bring the “remote driver” to the UK for trial.
Licensing them could also be “problematic if remote drivers are used to driving on the right-hand side of the road or are unfamiliar with British road layouts,” said the Commission. It asked whether “driving from abroad should be prohibited”.
Concerns over ‘situational awareness’
The Commission also raised concerns about “situational awareness” where a remote driver could become “detached” from the job in hand because of the lack of “physical sensations” making it more like a video game than a real-life journey.
It set out options including “virtual reality” headsets for remote drivers as well as “specific, targeted training, in addition to holding a driving licence for any vehicle they control. They will also need health checks and regular breaks”.
Remote driving will also require reliable and effective broadband connections because of the risk of accidents if they were lost during a journey. Some motoring experts told the Commission 5G rollout would be required, although others thought the 4G network would be adequate.
The Commission concluded: “There is no clear answer to the question of whether remote driving is ‘safe’. Although it gives rise to many serious safety concerns, it may be safe enough in some limited circumstances, provided sufficient care is taken over each aspect of the operation.”