Imagine the scene: you are driving down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. Your car comes to a dramatic halt, braking on its own. Through your internet-connected entertainment system a hacker has attacked your car and seized control of the brakes. The accelerator is doing nothing: you are stuck. And vulnerable.
And you are not alone. On Fifth Avenue alone, about one in five cars isn’t moving. The traffic has effectively stopped and chaos has ensued. To make matters worse, a car ahead of you has braked so hard that the car behind it has rear-ended it, and the driver needs medical attention. With traffic completely gridlocked, the emergency services will struggle to get through.
This scenario is sketched out in a recent paper published in the journal Physical Review E by researchers at Georgia Tech. The research team wanted to show how cybercrime might affect the real world, not just our digital identities, so they developed a model for how hackers might weaponise internet-connected cars.
Peter Yunker, an assistant professor of physics at Georgia Tech co-authored the research. The idea was to build on existing research that examines hacking vulnerabilities in self-driving and connected cars.
Yunker and his team ran simulations using an advanced physics model to understand how traffic would be affected in Manhattan if a certain percentage of cars on the road were stopped. They found that, during rush hour, only 20% of the cars would need to be hacked to effectively freeze the grid.
To figure out this number, Yunker and his fellow researchers modeled a physics concept called percolation. When it comes to the car hacking scenario, 20% of cars on the road being hacked is the percolation point because it prevents a car from getting from the tip of Manhattan all the way up the island.
Yunker and his co-authors chose Manhattan because there’s plenty of mapping and traffic data about the city. But they believe that a hack like this would have an even worse impact on a city like Atlanta or Los Angeles. Those cities aren’t based on grids. Instead they tend to have fewer numbers of large thoroughfares that you have slog through to get anywhere.
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