Although self-driving cars tout laser radar or LiDAR systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars, a security researcher now claims these autonomous cars are vulnerable to paralysis via a laser hack attack—through a home-made electronics kit that costs only $60.

Jonathan Petit, a security researcher at Security Innovation, Inc., has revealed he can easily trick a driverless car to abruptly stop, thinking it will collide with a person, an obstacle or another car, by exploiting its laser navigation systems and sensors.

Petit says the $60 gadget that can paralyze the LiDAR sensors is built out of a Raspberry Pi and a laser pointer system.

The LiDAR sensors provide the vehicle's computer with data to build a picture of its surroundings. If the attacker gives the car false signals about nonexistent objects, he or she could force the self-driving vehicle to slow down or even stop.

LiDAR, which stands for Light Detection and Ranging, is a sensing technology that can measure an object's distance by sending a laser pulse and recording the amount of reflected light. This explains its whopping price.

Google, for instance, is reportedly using a LiDAR sensing technology on its autonomous cars, which cost €62,800 or around $70,000.

He said the laser hack attack can be performed in front, from behind or from the side of the autonomous vehicle, without alerting the passenger of the car.

"I can take echoes of a fake car and put them at any location I want," Petit, who is also a former research fellow at the University of Cork's Computer Security Group, said in a press interview. "I can do the same with a pedestrian or a wall."

"I can spoof thousands of objects and basically carry out a denial-of-service attack on the tracking system so it's not able to track real objects," the researcher added.

Petit told the press he discovered the exploit as he was carrying out a study on the cyber vulnerabilities of self-driving cars.

The paper, "Revisiting Attacker Model for Smart Vehicles," was presented by Petit at the IEEE 6th International Symposium on Wireless Vehicular Communications (WiVeC) in 2014.

In November, the researcher will present his discovery at the Black Hat Europe security conference.

Photo: Ed and Eddie | Flickr

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