Patterns can be used to disable self-driving cars, researchers show

A group of researchers, here wearing T-shirts with patterns that confuse self-driving cars, have shown that these coloured patterns can disrupt the autonomous driving systems. — Wolfram Scheible/Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems/dpa

Who knew self-driving cars were so easy to confuse? For all their high-tech safety, autonomous cars still struggle to make sense of the simplest of things: patterns.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems (MPI-IS) in Tuebingen, Germany have shown that certain coloured patterns can confuse a car's autopilot system, thus posing a serious danger to passengers.

According to Tuebingen researcher Anurag Ranjan, a pattern, for example on a T-shirt or a shopping bag, can disrupt the autonomous driving systems.

If a car's on-board cameras pick up this colour pattern, it can essentially paralyse the autopilot, posing a huge risk to passengers, especially if the car driving at high speeds.

This particular safety problem is just the tip of the iceberg, says Eric Sax from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT).

"When it comes to automated driving, we are still incredibly far away from general roadworthiness and series production in a demanding environment," said the expert, who was not himself involved in the study.

The researchers also warned about the risk of hacker attacks on autonomous cars, as such disruptive colour patterns could be created within a few hours.

A spokeswoman for the research team said it had informed companies such as Tesla, Porsche, Daimler, BMW and Bosch about the possible risk.

Researchers cautioned that their results were based on speculations of how autonomous driving systems are programmed to respond in certain situations. – dpa

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