Car Technology for Stopping Terrorist Attacks by Drivers Already Exists

Technology that can prevent a driver from using his or her car as a weapon already exists. But the use of such machinery for this purpose carries some unavoidable ethical considerations.

Assistant professor of computer science at North Dakota State University Jeremy Straub argued in The Conversation that many cars on the road—not just smart cars—already contain some of the necessary technological components for preventing their use by terrorists.

The majority of cars being put on the road today have built-in collision-detection features, meaning they can identify when they're about to hit something. Most of the time, these features are dormant. But when activated by an impending collision, whether with a person, building, or another car, they have the ability to override the driver's control. Those commercials where an emergency braking system saves the pretty girls distracted by Ryan Reynolds from running over a different Ryan Reynolds as he walks his 35 dogs? Those could be enhanced to identify movement patterns indicative of a terrorist attack.

As Straub explained, the typical driver, who does not wish to cause harm or die, drives with the intention of avoiding contact with other things on the road. On-board car computers are now sophisticated enough to differentiate between that style of safe driving and one in which the car is being deliberately steered into a person or thing. So the cars can override the drivers.

But at the moment the drivers can still override that override. Not everyone likes the idea of their technology being able to take over, even if it would do a way better job. Wary consumers are becoming more comfortable with the increasingly advanced tech being installed in their cars, but we're not fully there yet. On-board computers remain vulnerable to hacking, and their official intended use at the moment is for situations like runaway cars. But manufacturers, if they chose to, could take that ability away, giving the car the final say in a crisis, not the driver.

Of course, if it was just a matter of deciding whether or not to avoid killing people we might have made more headway by now. But there could easily be circumstances where giving on-board computers control puts people in more danger, not less, like if a driver needed to escape a crowd.

As pace-setting brands like Tesla continue to emphasize collision-avoidance features and ever-more-advanced versions of those features saturate the market, sooner or later this is a talk we're going to have to have.