The Wonderful, Worrisome World of Self-Driving Cars

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There seem to be warning stickers for everything. There may soon be a new sticker for the autonomous car era: "Warning: Self-Driving Cars Get Hacked." Despite all the positive news about self-driving cars, there is a darker side to this story that's very important. It's one that can be particularly frightening if you happen to be riding in an autonomous car when it gets hacked.

When your laptop gets hacked, it's a pain in the neck. You can't use your computer for several days until the problem is solved and your system is restored to normal. When your smartphone gets hacked, it's another pain the neck. Since most people don't protect their wireless phones, this is a growing problem.

Now the bad guys are finding their way into the autonomous car. Today, in these early days, the self-driving car seems to make the vast majority of people uneasy. Maybe in another 10 or 20 years, we'll feel more comfortable as the technology gets better and safeguards are installed in the cars and on the roads -- but we're not there yet.

Most people don't realize it yet, but we already drive smart cars. Several years ago -- before we started talking about autonomous cars and self-driving cars -- Lexus introduced the first self-parking car. You pulled up to the empty space, engaged the self-parking technology, and the car parked itself.

Advanced cruise control is another smart feature that's been around for 10 or 15 years. When it senses that a car is getting too close to a vehicle ahead of it, it applies the brakes until it's safe to accelerate to the set speed again.

We think of autonomous cars as new, but they've been with us for a long time already. What's new is that self-driving tech is moving toward the mainstream, and there are still lots of issues that need to be resolved before it can be safe for all of us -- issues with the cars, with other drivers, and with roads.

Since many cars now are connected to the Internet, we have to protect them from hackers. When we hear terms like "autonomous," "automated driving" and "self-driving technology," we think of new and advanced tech like what Google and Tesla are working on. However, these concepts have been undergoing development for years. Now they're ramping up to the next level.

Many of us wouldn't feel comfortable taking a giant leap to a self-driving car, but we could deal with a self-parking car or with automated cruise control. That's the way the technology creeps up on us when we're not looking -- but it can bite us in the rear end.

These are still very early self-driving days. There is an incredible business opportunity that will continue to mature and develop. We can't stop evolution and progress, but since living in today's world means relying on technology and connecting to the Internet, we must protect our technology from cyberattacks.

Companies that focus on technology and software to protect our devices will be of growing importance. Some new technologies will be implemented at the plants that manufacture cars with autonomous features. Some will be for sale at automotive dealerships as add-ons for an additional fee.

We may get to the point where we can walk into our neighborhood Target or Walmart and buy over-the-counter software and hardware to install ourselves in order to add features and functionality to our driving experience. That creates more opportunities -- and more threats to guard against.

So from a business perspective, self-driving technology is a growing area. That is good news for workers and investors. However, as always, choosing the right company and the right technology is critical. End users also need to be wary of the increasing cyberthreats we'll have to protect against. Welcome to the future -- but remember, it has two sides!

E-Commerce Times columnist Jeff Kagan is a wireless analyst, telecom analyst, industry analyst, consultant and speaker who has been sharing his colorful perspectives on the changing industry for 25 years. Email him at [email protected]

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