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New Study Warns That Lasers Can Blind Autonomous Driving Vehicles Causing Them to Crash Into Pedestrians

November 30, 2022

A news article published on reports that a new research study has discovered that when a laser is aimed at a self-driving vehicle's guidance system, its sensors fail to detect pedestrians or other potential obstacles. 

Researchers from both Japan and the United States tricked a self-driving car into not seeing obstacles in front after pointing a laser at the vehicle's Light Detection and Ranging system (LIDAR). LIDAR is a sensor technology that creates a map of its surroundings. LIDAR sensors transmit infrared light waves around the vehicle and then measure the amount of time the infrared light waves take to return to the sensor. This technology creates a three-dimensional map from the data.

According to the study, when a perfectly-timed laser is aimed directly at a self-driving car's LIDAR, a large blind spot is created. Then the infrared sensors are unable to "see" pedestrians or other objects in front of them. 

Sara Rampazzi, a professor and University of Florida cybersecurity researcher, states that lasers mimic LIDAR reflections reducing the ability of the infrared wave to receive information from genuine obstacles. Rampazzi also stated that this "deletion" of infrared data causes the self-driving car to continue driving, although there is an object in the vehicle's path, creating a potentially dangerous collision. In other words, a laser's fake reflections are the reflections perceived by the sensor.

In the study's laser test, Professor Rampazzi and her colleagues performed a "laser attack." The researchers were able to replicate the results from as far away as 32 feet from the car. Rampazzi did report that the laser had to keep pace with the vehicle's movements, and the laser had to be pointed at the right spot to cause the safety issue. The researchers believe that they could produce similar laser attacks from further away if they used more sophisticated equipment.

Tragically, the technology needed to perform a laser attack is "fairly basic." However, such attacks are unlikely to happen at this time. The researchers worry that if these attacks were successful, the negative consequences would be terrifying, as laser attacks could kill drivers, vehicle passengers, and pedestrians.

The study's researchers have explained the results to autonomous vehicle manufacturers hoping they would update their LIDAR software to eliminate the potential danger. The researchers proved that previous defense strategies were not enough to protect the public, and they proposed new modifications that would correct the issue. One suggestion urged the manufacturers to modify how LIDAR interprets its raw data drastically. Another suggestion includes making the system distinguish real infrared signals from laser reflections.

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