4 min read

Progress in the field of machine vision is one of the most important factors in the rise of the self-driving car. An autonomous vehicle has to be able to sense its environment and react appropriately. Free space has to be calculated, solid objects avoided, and all of the instructions  painted on the tarmac or posted on signs have to be obeyed.

Deep neural networks turned out to be pretty good at classifying images, but it’s still worth remembering that the process is quite unlike the way humans identify images, even if the end results are fairly similar.

Researchers from Tencent Keen Security Lab have published a report detailing their successful attacks on Tesla firmware. It includes remote control over the steering, and an adversarial example attack on the autopilot that confuses the car into driving into the oncoming traffic lane.

The researchers used an attack chain that they disclosed to Tesla, and which Tesla now claims has been eliminated with recent patches.


To effect the remote steering attack, the researchers had to bypass several redundant layers of protection. But having done this, they were able to write an app that would let them connect a video-game controller to a mobile device and then steer a target vehicle, overriding the actual steering wheel in the car as well as the autopilot systems. This attack has some limitations: while a car in Park or traveling at high speed on Cruise Control can be taken over completely, a car that has recently shifted from R to D can only be remote controlled at speeds up to 8km/h.

Tesla vehicles use a variety of neural networks for autopilot and other functions (such as detecting rain on the windscreen and switching on the wipers); the researchers were able to use adversarial examples (small, mostly human-imperceptible changes that cause machine learning systems to make gross, out-of-proportion errors) to attack these.

Most dramatically, the researchers attacked the autopilot lane-detection systems. By adding noise to lane-markings, they were able to fool the autopilot into losing the lanes altogether, however, the patches they had to apply to the lane-markings would not be hard for humans to spot.

Much more seriously, they were able to use “small stickers” on the ground to effect a “fake lane attack” that fooled the autopilot into steering into the opposite lanes where oncoming traffic would be moving. This worked even when the targeted vehicle was operating in daylight without snow, dust or other interference.

Misleading the autopilot vehicle to the wrong direction with some patches made by a malicious attacker, in sometimes, is more dangerous than making it fail to recognize the lane. The researchers painted three inconspicuous tiny square in the picture took from camera, and the vision module would recognize it as a lane with a high degree of confidence as below shows…

fake lane in digital level

After that they tried to build such a scene in the physical world: pasted some small stickers as interference patches on the ground in an intersection. They used these patches to guide the Tesla vehicle in the Autosteer mode driving to the reverse lane. The test scenario like Fig 34 shows, red dashes are the stickers, the vehicle would regard them as the continuation of its right lane, and ignore the real left lane opposite the intersection. When it travels to the middle of the intersection, it would take the real left lane as its right lane and drive into the reverse lane.

fake lane mode

Tesla autopilot module’s lane recognition function has a good robustness in an ordinary external environment (no strong light, rain, snow, sand and dust interference), but it still doesn’t handle the situation correctly in the test scenario. This kind of attack is simple to deploy, and the materials are easy to obtain. As talked in the previous introduction of Tesla’s lane recognition function, Tesla uses a pure computer vision solution for lane recognition, and as found in this attack experiment that the vehicle driving decision is only based on computer vision lane recognition results. The experiments proved that this architecture has security risks and reverse lane recognition is one of the necessary functions for autonomous driving in non-closed roads. In the scene built, if the vehicle knows that the fake lane is pointing to the reverse lane, it should ignore this fake lane and then it could avoid a traffic accident.

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Being a Senior Content Marketing Editor at Packt Publishing, I handle vast array of content in the tech space ranging from Data science, Web development, Programming, Cloud & Networking, IoT, Security and Game development. With prior experience and understanding of Marketing I aspire to grow leaps and bounds in the Content & Digital Marketing field. On the personal front I am an ambivert and love to read inspiring articles and books on life and in general.