It’s worryingly easy to confuse a driverless car with stickers on road signs

Self-driving cars are, supposedly, a safer alternative to the over-congested, human-filled roads of today. Their autonomy means a future of getting from A to B without worrying about pile-up and traffic jams. At least, that was their intended purpose but thanks to a team of University of Washington researchers, it turns out these smart cars aren’t as clever as they seem.

It's worryingly easy to confuse a driverless car with stickers on road signs

The researchers discovered that it’s relatively easy to throw off an autonomous vehicle’s image recognition system by altering street signs. By adding simple “Love” and “Hate” graphics onto a sign, the autonomous car stopped reading it as a stop sign and instead thought it was little more than a speed limit notice.

Such a simple change to the sign could result in cars skipping junctions and potentially crashing into one another. All it takes is one would-be attacker to print stickers off at home and slap them on a few road signs. The research project didn’t look into street art confusing autonomous cars, but logic suggests if it alters the sign enough it could well have a similar effect.

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To fight back against potential problems surrounding road-sign recognition, the team suggests using contextual information to back up and verify what a road sign means. A car shouldn’t expect to see a stop sign on a motorway or a national speed limit notice in the middle of a busy town. It’s also worth considering alternatives to simply relying on visual information to determine what a road sign means.

Many GPS devices know speed limits and road signage due to having them pre-programmed in along roads and popular travel routes. It may mean that the information in the car isn’t always up to date with road layout changes, but it would provide a more robust solution than a car simply reading a sign. Government agencies could also equip road signs with beacons, beaming the contents of a road sign to the car.

This isn’t the first time self-driving cars have been confused thanks to human meddling. In 2015 it was discovered you could confuse a self-driving car with little more than a laser pointer and a Raspberry Pi. While the laser pointer route certainly required a lot of work and dedication to mess up an autonomous car, this street sign approach is relatively low-tech and low budget.

What this research really points to is, despite the clear advantages of using self-driving cars, it’ll take a while yet before we’ve soothed its teething problems. Let’s hope that by the time that comes, the general public still has faith in a computer-driven car.

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