Self-driving cars tricked
Researchers used altered street signs to confuse self-driving cars into misreading them Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As self-driving technologies continue to develop, the vulnerabilities associated with them have also become a point of debate. People, automobile experts, and governments across the globe are worried about the possibility of a remote hack where a smart car is hijacked to create on-street chaos.

A team of researchers at the University of Washington have flagged a major loophole associated with connected cars technology.

Much like how the Galaxy S8's iris scanner was hoodwinked by a photo, researchers have learned that self-driving cars can be deceived by a simple defacing trick that even a prankster can employ to compromise an autonomous vehicle. They analysed the image recognition system of connected cars and were able to use sticker-borne street signs to confuse the vehicles into misreading them.

The researchers used two ways to trick the system in test conditions. First, they used love/hate stickers on a stop sign to make the car believe it was actually reading a speed limit notice — from different angles and distances. Then, they masked a Right Turn sign with grey stickers to confuse the car's algorithm to see it as either a Stop or Added Lane sign.

Although hackers or pranksters cannot trick a car's vision system without understanding its algorithm, the threat of automated vehicles being fooled cannot be ignored. Tricking cars into speeding up when they have to slow down or stopping when they should be driving can lead to a number of accidents.

While it is still unknown how this loophole affects fully autonomous self-driving cars, the team involved in the research suggests using contextual information to verify if a sign is authentic. This way, a car would be able to use location-based data to identify inaccurate signs and know that it should not race at highway speeds in suburbs.

Among other things, governments can install street signs with anti-stick materials to keep them from getting altered or carmakers can add failsafes using multiple cameras and lidar sensors to prevent the system from misreading a street sign.