Researchers Tape Speed Limit Sign to Make Teslas Accelerate to 85 MPH

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The future of driving is not driving; at least that’s what companies like Tesla think. Elon Musk’s electric car company has focused on aggressively deploying self-driving technology in its cars, but as we’ve seen before, Autopilot isn’t perfect. A team of security researchers from McAfee has managed to trick Tesla vehicles into speeding up by 50 miles per hour with a little bit of electrical tape. 

With Autopilot, Tesla vehicles can stay in a lane, change lanes, and adjust its speed. With the “enhanced” Autopilot mode, vehicles can dynamically move through traffic and (eventually) navigate surface streets to handle the entire driving experience. Teslas can even read speed limit signs using technology from Intel subsidiary Mobileye. It turns out this system is very easy to fool. 

The Mobileye EyeQ3 camera detects speed limit signs, reads the number, and passes that data off to the Autopilot. The team used a 35 MPH sign for testing. As expected, the car has no trouble detecting that and sticking to the speed limit. However, a few strips of tape to extend the middle line on the three (see above) changed how the system recognized the characters. Suddenly, the car thought the speed limit was 85 miles per hour, a decidedly unsafe speed on any road marked as 35 MPH. 

The researchers tested this hack first with a 2016 Tesla Model X. The vehicle set the cruise control to 85 MPH as soon as it saw the sign. As you can see in the video below, the driver put on the brakes around 50 MPH for safety reasons. Of course, they knew the car was going to do this. A driver faced with a modified speed limit sign might not know anything was wrong until the car was moving at a dangerous speed. The team confirmed this was not a problem with the specific Model X by testing again with a Model S. 

McAfee disclosed its research to both Tesla and Mobileye last year, but neither company seemed overly concerned. Mobileye notes that even a human driver might be fooled by the modified sign. Tesla has stopped using Mobileye cameras on its newest cars, but it doesn’t see any way to address the issue in existing vehicles. 

This isn’t the first time Tesla’s self-driving tech has proven easy to fool. Last year, researchers from Keen Security Lab showed that it took just three small reflective stickers to confuse the car’s lane-keeping system and send it into oncoming traffic.

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