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Sunday, June 13, 2010

On Cars, Traffic, and Networks

European researchers are developing an ubiquitous wireless network for use in traffic management. Lights, signs, cars, etc would communicate wirelessly, in order to minimize jams, smooth traffic flow, and improve safety. But is the system all the good it seems?

While CVIS (Cooperative Vehicle-Infrastructure Systems) certainly does have its merits, it also has a lot to be concerned about,  not just on the hardware side, but also on the privacy and security sides too.

On the one hand, smoother traffic is always welcome, and this system will certainly help achieve that. By tracking vehicles, it becomes easy to pinpoint jams, and have the city route traffic around them to avoid exacerbating the situation, while lights can adaptively change their red/green duration to minimize wait, or even achieve the perfectly synchronized green wave. Emergency vehicles can now gain priority much faster on the road, as drivers ahead of them are warned of their approach, long before they may even hear the sirens, and the vehicles themselves are routed along not only the most direct route, but also the fastest, with the minimum amount of cars and lights, which also trigger themselves green for the oncoming ER vehicle (this system is already in use in the US, where IR-sensors mounted on the lights give priority if a corresponding signal is detected from the ER vehicle's emitter).

On the other hand, there are also significant hardware and security concerns. For one, are cars going to be retrofitted with the system, or when this comes online, only those who bought the latest, compliant car will benefit from its abilities? Because the system will find it hard to spread if everyone must buy a new car to enjoy the benefits.
Also, how integrated will the system be in the car? As I once covered, cars' internal controllers are surprisingly easy to hack, and can cause surprising events to occur. If this system is not isolated from the CAN-bus, there's a rather good chance that someone will find an exploit, and be able to insert data onto the bus from the outside. And at this point, we have to consider that this is a point-to-point wireless network, so anyone with a laptop and a transmitter may wreak havoc on unsuspecting motorists.
In addition, privacy activists will probably resent the fact that their movements (or rather, their cars') are being tracked, even if only to prevent traffic jams, and they will be (should be) powerless to turn it off, because if they could/did, it would defeat one of the major points of the system. While the system can be used to track stolen cars instantly, and have the police come down on car thieves like a ton of bricks, it can also be used for nefarious purposes, should someone gain access to the tracking system, or even jury-rig a setup to force cars to report their positions to them too. Not only will this feature minimize jams, it will possibly also maximize terrorist attack yields, should terrorists figure out a way to access the information on the network.

While the CVIS certainly does have promise, execution lacks details so far, and needs to be very good if the system is about the become a success. Let's just hope that security will be a major focus, for all our sake.

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