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Split-Second 'Phantom' Images Can Fool Tesla's Autopilot


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New Teslas awaiting shipment.

By flashing a quick image, researchers could bring a Tesla Model X to a halt.

Credit: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Safety concerns over automated driver-assistance systems like Tesla's usually focus on what the car can't see, like the white side of a truck that one Tesla confused with a bright sky in 2016, leading to the death of a driver. But one group of researchers has been focused on what autonomous driving systems might see that a human driver doesn't—including "phantom" objects and signs that aren't really there, which could wreak havoc on the road.

Researchers at Israel's Ben Gurion University of the Negev have spent the last two years experimenting with those "phantom" images to trick semi-autonomous driving systems. They previously revealed that they could use split-second light projections on roads to successfully trick Tesla's driver-assistance systems into automatically stopping without warning when its camera sees spoofed images of road signs or pedestrians. In new research, they've found they can pull off the same trick with just a few frames of a road sign injected on a billboard's video. And they warn that if hackers hijacked an internet-connected billboard to carry out the trick, it could be used to cause traffic jams or even road accidents while leaving little evidence behind.

"The attacker just shines an image of something on the road or injects a few frames into a digital billboard, and the car will apply the brakes or possibly swerve, and that's dangerous," says Yisroel Mirsky, a researcher for Ben Gurion University and Georgia Tech who worked on the research, which will be presented next month at the ACM Computer and Communications Security conference. "The driver won't even notice at all. So somebody's car will just react, and they won't understand why."

 

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