Hacking LIDAR: Changing What Autonomous Vehicles See

Las Vegas, NV – In the near future, automobile manufacturers are expected to begin rolling out autonomous driving vehicles that use Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) lasers to see objects, roads, and people.

These driver-less vehicles will soon be cruising down every major city street, through school zones and storms, and even delivering you pizza. But what if, for example, your autonomous pizza delivery vehicle doesn’t see a pile of trash that blew over into the road?

At DEFCON 27 hacking conference in Las Vegas, Unicorn Riot spoke with Dr. Richard Hansen, who partnered with Hawk Security to investigate ways in which LIDAR could be disrupted in autonomous driving vehicles. During the testing phase, the group only used everyday household items which can be easily obtained at your local hardware or grocery store.

“We tried to see if we could sow chaos for a few dollars.” – Dr. Richard Hansen

In general, LIDAR uses lasers to scan and survey an area to measure distance to an object. Using the data, LIDAR then creates a three dimensional representation of the area which autonomous vehicles then use to detect objects, such as trash bags in the road.

[Example of LIDAR usage with an autonomous driving vehicle]
The different results allowed the hackers to make the LIDAR think objects were there that weren’t there as well as make some object invisible.

According to Dr. Hansen, experiments using just a black trash bag appeared to be the most effective method of obfuscating an object that the LIDAR detects which is actually there. The trash-bag works much like an F-117 Stealth Bomber because it deflects and absorbs the wavelengths which the LIDAR lasers use to survey an area.

Trash bag experiment with LIDAR

The group of hackers also found that the LIDAR lasers would interpret a particular mixture of powders as a sort of wall. According to Dr. Hansen, the powder was able to be suspended for up to 30+ seconds, long enough to bring a car to a stop.

Organic powder LIDAR data shows virtual wall

This may sound like the work of a mad scientist hell-bent on sowing chaos for autonomous pizza delivery vehicles but the reality is far less exciting (though perhaps much better for your driver-less taxi experience). Dr. Hansen hacks technology such as LIDAR for a living, identifies vulnerabilities, and works within the industry to make autonomous vehicles safer in the future.

Dr. Hansen also stresses that anyone wishing to conduct similar tests should:

“Be careful not to get anyone run over or blown up in the process.” – Dr. Hansen

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