Why Terrorists Probably Won’t Hijack Google’s Driverless Cars

It’s easier and more effective for extremists to kill the old-fashioned way—with suicide bombs

The FBI inspired an apocalyptic vision in August when its analysts concluded that terrorists could exploit Google’s driverless cars for their bloody and nefarious ends.

Let us assuage your fear. Robot cars are not about to become the latest terror threat.

The FBI report, which the Guardian obtained by way of the Freedom of Information Act, concluded that autonomous cars could become “lethal weapons” in extremists’ hands.

The Bureau worries that an armed driver could blast away with guns in both hands while his car drives itself. But the bigger fear is that instead of sending in suicide bombers to wreak havoc, terrorists could simply dispatch an autonomous bomb-on-wheels.

After all, a driverless robotic car that doesn’t require a person behind the wheel—a person who might just balk at the last moment.

But all those fears are way overblown, says philosophy professor and robotics ethicist Patrick Lin, in an essay for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Lin cites a number of reasons why terrorists won’t be heading to the robot car dealership anytime soon.

For one, the technology is expensive. At present, self-guided cars are limited to a handful of luxury models from Mercedes and Infiniti. Dropping a hundred thousand dollars on a vehicle that will only be used once is a bit much, even for well-off terrorist groups like Islamic State.

Current technology allows autonomous cars some ability to travel down a highway or navigate city streets. But a human driver is way more adaptable if conditions change, like running into an unexpected security checkpoint.

Thus it’s easier for terrorists to just recruit a willing martyr than to try to rig a pricey robotic automobile. If they can’t find a volunteer, they can always coerce or dupe someone into driving a car bomb. Or if they really want to get technological, they can rig a normal car to operate by remote control—or perhaps pack a drone aircraft with explosives.

Still, technical barriers crumble over time as the tech improves and machines become cheaper. Just as drones evolved from mindless devices for aerial gunnery practice into sophisticated killing machines, so might self-guided cars evolve into intelligent car bombs.

Just as cheap cell phone technology helped propel the development of IEDs, so might better computers allow cheaper autonomous vehicles.

But there’s more to suicide bombs than technology. “The point for some guerrilla fighters—though probably not for ordinary criminals—is martyrdom and its eternal benefits,” Lin notes. “So dying isn’t so much of a cost to these terrorists, but rather more of a payoff.”

And there’s a deeper reason why terrorists might prefer human suicide bombers. The power of suicide weapons isn’t their military effectiveness. Kamikazes could sink some American ships, but they had no hope of destroying the entire U.S. fleet and winning the war for Japan.

Likewise, Palestinian suicide bombers have killed hundreds of Israelis. But far more Israelis die in traffic accidents.

No, the true power of suicide weapons is psychological. Your enemy wants to destroy you so badly that he’s willing to sacrifice his own life. It’s scary. Soulless robots are also scary in an impersonal way, but no drone will ever hate you with the intensity of a fanatic wearing a suicide vest.

At top—Google’s self-driving car. Google photo