We Rode a Robot Bus – And Lived to Tell About It

Connected Life

Recently we had the unique opportunity to do something few people in the world have ever done – go for a ride on a “robot bus.” A self-driving bus has taken to the open road in Helsinki as a test project, and it’s not far from the F-Secure headquarters.

Harri Santamala of Metropolia University of Applied Sciences is project leader, and he was keen to meet the cyber security experts at F-Secure. I went along with the guys to film our ride in Periscope.

The city of Helsinki has the ambitious goal of making car ownership completely unnecessary within a decade, and the self-driving bus is part of that plan. This particular bus pilot is literally one of the first open road demos worldwide. And anyone who wants to can jump on board for a ride into the future of transportation.

“On the open road we can learn more in week than we can on a closed road in a year,” says Santamala.

We waited at the “robot bus stop” under the sun – a perfect day for a ride along the waterfront. The bus arrived, somewhat resembling a breadbox on wheels. We climbed in and off we went, rolling along at 11km per hour (it’s capable of doing 40). A couple of cars passed us, impatient at our pace. An “operator” stood at the ready as a failsafe in case anything should go wrong.

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Looking years into the future, when self-driving tech is mature – will a human need to be involved at all? Harri compares the tech to an elevator: In the beginning, elevators used to have human operators to push the buttons and control the ascent and descent. Nowadays elevators have no special operators, but there is still a remote person on call in case anything should go wrong.

“The worry was if you give the power to regular people they’re just going to crash it into the floor or something,” said Janne Kauhanen of F-Secure Cyber Security Services. “But then we figured out a way where the person in the elevator can’t drive it into a wall, even if he wants to. You just press a button for a floor and the automation takes you to that floor. So if there were no legal requirements to have an operator in charge, why would you need that? The vehicle could just make the driving decisions independently without the need for anybody to control it.”

A future of self-driving cars sounds pretty amazing. Traffic accident deaths could become a thing of the past, like dying of smallpox. When traffic is automated, traffic jams could become part of the “good ol’ days” too. No more being stuck in rush hour traffic.

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But there are still plenty of security issues to figure out. And while the most obvious one is making sure a hacker can’t take control of the vehicle remotely, F-Secure security advisor Sean Sullivan adds that in the case of an automated bus network, denial of service attacks would also be a major concern.

“If the goal is to have such good public options that I don’t need to own a vehicle, then I’m screwed if the public option is unavailable,” says Sullivan. “So, it would be a natural target for an extortionist to threaten the city or the organization running the service.”

Sullivan says vehicles on set routes could probably deal with common DDoS worries. But a system that attempts to provide on-demand services would be cloud-based, so the bus would need to be able to talk with its C&C server. “Scaling such services will require a robust network and good security to prevent any unauthorized control.”

You can catch the Periscope video of our self-driving bus ride here.

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1 Comments

Nice as the thought of less accidents is, I don’t know why sciences are still looking to improve road.usage. Why are R&D not looking at elevated monorails so users who prefer the freedom to go wherever they want it can still be an option. I cannot understand why governments don’t put monorails overhead of motorways so they don’t need to keep ripping up the countryside to make more road and rail tracks. I was born in 1950 and have been used to personal freedom of movement all my life. My age group finds it hardest to give up I have to add. Although I have had a Scottish government free ride bus pass for 6 years I have used it only twice. Public transport is not conveinient enough for me when I can go outside my house and get in my own car or motorbike and go at whatever time I want to wherever I want. Mind you I live in a quiet area, I understand it would be different in the city but even so I would give up my car reluctantly. I would move out of the city first rather than give up my transport. However for Younger people more power to Harri Santamala’s elbow.

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