Fully Autonomous Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device—Mitigating Strategies

Kevin Knopf


Terrorists throughout the world use vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) to attack targets. The availability of fully autonomous vehicles (FAVs) will change terrorism tactics by eliminating the need for martyrdom when delivering VBIEDs. As such, counter-terrorism forces must ask: What FAV technologies can be adapted to mitigate the threat of VIEBDs?
The future risk of explosives delivered by FAVs can be decreased by proactively implementing design and policy solutions today. Amplification of the current threat of (non-autonomous) VBIEDs can be gleaned by a comparison with small unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs). UAVs show how the seemingly benign availability of unmanned systems can easily be adapted as smart weapons for asymmetrical warfare. This thesis overviews the projected threat posed by the nefarious use of FAVs as fully autonomous vehicle borne improvised explosive devices (FAVBIEDs). This thesis shows how easily FAVs can be used for explosive delivery and discusses technological solutions that should be implemented, proactively, to reduce this threat. The overarching purpose of this thesis is also to capture what can be accomplished with public private partnerships working collaboratively to address strategic issues involving public safety in the United States.
Projecting and planning for devastating events or scenarios that have yet to occur is an ongoing challenge. More often than not, the first responder community reacts and adapts to unforeseen circumstances. The potential means by which a FAV can be weaponized are unsettlingly diverse. This research focuses on scenarios in which FAVs serve as VBIEDs that deliver their deadly cargo without occupants present. Imagination is a powerful tool. By drawing inspiration from prior appalling events and imagining them in an alternate setting via scenarios, it is the sincere desire of this author to impact the discussion on fully autonomous vehicle borne improvised explosive device (FAVBIED) mitigating strategies positively.
Since the threat of terrorism to the U.S. homeland can be considered an uncontrollable external low occurrence risk, the intent of this thesis is not only to identify risks, but also acknowledge the potential impact and determine how to mitigate the effects if an event does occur. To prioritize and assess risk, analysis should consider both the probability and consequences of a particular risk event. As this thesis explores the use of a technology that has yet to be commercially available to the general public, the probability of a FAVBIED is currently considered low. However, the consequences of a future successful deployment would be considerable.
With the development of the FAV in conjunction with the evolution of asymmetrical public safety threats, problems and solutions once inconceivable in past years are now commonplace and it can be expected that continued disruptive technologies will to be dual-use when looking toward the future. Admittedly, without regulatory mandates for adoption, the incentive for FAV manufacturers to embrace and enact the proposed mitigating strategies is more a function of self-interest than altruism. Manufacture cost benefit analysis may indicate a course of action, or lack thereof, contrary to the best interests of public safety.
The development and implementation of FAVBIED mitigating strategies raises the prospect of synergistic opportunities amongst vehicle manufacturers and the homeland security enterprise while improving public safety and enhancing the overall transportation network experience. The following are specific recommendations:
• FAVs need to have constraints on where they are allowed to drive.
• FAVs need the ability to identity their users.
• FAVs need internal capabilities to identity intended or unintended cargo or occupants.
• FAVs need internal and external system monitoring to identify unauthorized computer system access (aka hacking), a mechanism to report intrusions, and for the vehicle to have a back-up safety response default should systems be compromised.
• FAVs need the ability to receive and act upon instructions from external inputs, such as law enforcement or other public safety agencies.
The people of this great nation have an expectation they will be protected and it is the duty and moral obligation of this country as homeland security practitioners to engage proactively. An open and forthright policy discussion with transparent expectations needs to be established at the federal regulatory level. The current free-for-all “hands off” policy by government oversight agencies is understandable given the strategic importance of winning the race to full autonomy. Yet, to be fair, it is necessary to ask if this policy is contrary to public safety expectations.

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