Tesla’s vehicles are the closest thing to a publicly available self-driving car with their robust Autopilot system. Drivers can have their cars remain in their lane, brake as needed, and even change lanes at the press of a button. However, this isn’t a fully autonomous driving system. That’s already known, but according to researchers from Keen Security Lab, all it takes to make a Tesla drive into oncoming traffic is a few small stickers.
It’s generally accepted that self-driving systems fit into one of five levels. Level one includes basic automation like lane assistance, which has been available for years. At level two, a car can handle a few general tasks without the driver’s supervision. For instance, some newer cars can steer and brake for several seconds on the highway. Level three is where we get into the bleeding edge of driverless technology. These vehicles use advanced sensors to scan the environment and drive for extended periods while responding to changing conditions. Level four and five are truly autonomous vehicles. At level four, you almost never need to touch the wheel, and level five doesn’t need a wheel at all.
Tesla’s Autopilot is a level two system that’s leaning into level three, but it might not have the necessary hardware to make it work. These vehicles use cameras, radar, and ultrasonic sensors to detect lanes and nearby vehicles. The Keen Security researchers reverse-engineered the software Tesla uses to see how easy it would be to fool those sensors. They didn’t need to make any changes to the car’s software — this is not a hack. They simply used three small reflective stickers on the roadway to trick Autopilot into thinking the lane had merged when it hadn’t.
According to the report, Tesla uses a feature called “detect_and_track” to identify lane markers. It uses several factors to avoid incorrect decisions like road shoulder location, lane history, and the distance to various objects. However, the reflective stickers appear to the car like lane markers, directing it to merge. These stickers are almost invisible to drivers, and it would be trivially easy to place them on roadways.
Tesla’s Autopilot system does include emergency braking. So, it’s possible the car could stop itself in the event it swerved into oncoming traffic. However, there’s no guarantee the other cars would stop. Tesla says it is evaluating the report but notes that drivers are supposed to keep their hands on the wheel while Autopilot is engaged.
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