Lawmakers worry about cyberattacks on self-driving cars

Lawmakers used a hearing on self-driving cars Tuesday to ask whether the much-hyped vehicles would be vulnerable to hacking.

The focus on cybersecurity and consumer data privacy from some members of the Senate Commerce Committee caused moments of friction in an otherwise smooth hearing for representatives from companies like Google and Lyft, which are both invested in the success of self-driving technology.

{mosads}Most lawmakers appeared excited by the technology — and many referenced rides they had taken in autonomous vehicles — but the issue of cybersecurity reappeared several times.

“You can imagine in this world of cybersecurity and cyberattacks, imagine what would happen to autonomous vehicles to get hacked while they’re out on the road,” said ranking member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). “One small defect could end up in a massive safety crisis.”

But the harshest heat for the witnesses came from Sens. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), both of whom advocated for the creation of standards governing protection of data from cyberattacks.

“Clearly hackers are going to have the ability to break into these vehicles,” Markey said. “And so the kinds of protections you build in can be voluntary, but if 10 companies do it and 10 don’t, then those 10 are going to be identified by the hackers as the ones they’re going to be playing games with out on the highways.”

“And I just think we need minimal standards that every company is going to meet.”

The witnesses were reluctant to say definitively that there should be governmental cybersecurity standards for the cars.

“We really haven’t determined whether we think we need mandatory standards or not, but what we have determined is that it does help to standardize … so then the question for us is how do we get there,” said Glen DeVos, an executive at Delphi Automotive.

That equivocation appeared to irk Blumenthal.

“May I respectfully suggest that the answer to the question, should there be mandatory safety and privacy standards, is yes,” he said. “And I didn’t hear that from all of the witnesses. I heard answers that basically implied maybe there should be.”

Both lawmakers also pressed the witnesses on whether there should be standards to protect owners of self-driving cars from having their data used by marketers and for other purposes unrelated to the operation of the car.

When Markey went down the witness table asking whether they thought standards were a good idea, he was met mostly with non-committal answers. Chris Urmson, the Google executive leading their car project and the most high-profile witness, said he wasn’t in a position to answer on behalf of the company.

Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.), who later said he didn’t want to see the government handle safety in a way that inhibits innovation, teased Markey for his persistence to laughter from a packed committee room.

“Thank you Sen. Markey,” he said. “And there is no requirement for the panelists to agree with him.”

Tags Bill Nelson cybersecurity Delphi Ed Markey Google John Thune Lyft Richard Blumenthal Self-Driving Cars

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