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We are on the verge of a major shift in transportation, with self-driving vehicles starting to appear on various roadways. When sensor data takes control of the wheel, the goal is fewer accidents, given that 94 percent of accidents are caused by human error. But what happens when such sensor data comes under attack?

Assistant Professor of Computer Science Qi Alfred Chen tackles this question with his new National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, “Automated Security Analysis of Software-Based Control in Emerging Smart Transportation Under Sensor Attacks.” Funded as part of the NSF’s Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE) Research Initiation Initiative (CRII), Chen will put the $175,000 toward evaluating the robustness of software-based control in emerging smart transportation systems.

“I am very excited that this proposal is funded so that my group can keep working on security problems in emerging smart transportation technologies such as autonomous driving,” says Chen. As explained in the grant, because sensor data is collected from a public channel — the physical transportation environment — it is vulnerable. “My group is developing systematic approaches to proactively identify and address new security challenges in smart transportation systems before wide deployment.”

Hacked systems can alter control decisions in smart transportation functions, leading to unsafe driving. The group thus plans to design a dynamic security analysis system based on an evolutionary algorithm approach. Using their research findings, they will propose novel solutions to challenges in generating analysis input, discovering semantic problems, and analyzing dataflow-centric decision processes.

“Since transportation is one of the most basic urban functions, our research will have a direct impact on the safety and mobility of our everyday life,” says Chen. “In the long term, we expect our pioneering research efforts to fundamentally change how smart transportation systems are designed and implemented to offer stronger security and safety guarantees.”  

— Shani Murray