Sunday musings: Future of driverless cars, SkyMall in free fall, Cybersecurity in the sky


Pondering the future brings us to the coming world of driverless cars, what flights will be without SkyMall and the creation of a aviation cybersecurity command in Maryland.

Autonomous vehicle technologies

Driverless cars are on the way. Autonomous vehicle technology has already changed the world. Readers would be surprised by the amount of driverless technology that is already packed into today’s automobiles — cruise control, anti-lock braking systems and electronic stability control. Mercedes has already deployed what it calls its Distronic Plus system that uses radar sensors to scan traffic ahead for stopped or slowing traffic.

One of the biggest questions will be liability. This study from the Brookings Institute deals in depth with liability issues and activity that is going on today to deal with insurance aspects of driverless cars. Travelers United, representing thousands of travelers, is following the discussions in Washington such as congressional preemption of state tort remedies. It is expected that DOT will have a heavy hand in making final decisions on manufacturing and consistent safety standards, but states will maintain their legal preeminence.

Motor vehicle accidents claimed over 33,000 lives in the United States in 2012—a number corresponding to an average of over 90 fatalities every day. Many of these deaths are directly attributable to a simple unfortunate fact: While most drivers are careful and conscientious, some are not. Motor vehicle accidents due to mistakes, poor judgment, poor driving skills, or outright criminal negligence exact an enormous societal cost.

…there is not a need to encumber the legal system with a new set of overly broad federal or state liability statutes relating to autonomous vehicles. Product liability law offers a time-tested framework that has proven to be adaptive to technology-driven liability issues in many other contexts. There is good reason to be optimistic that it will be equally capable of doing so when applied to autonomous vehicles.

Accidents, however, will always be an aspect of motor vehicle travel, and the liability questions that autonomous vehicles will raise are thus important and worthy of attention. That should not, however, be a reason to prevent consumer access to autonomous vehicle technology.

SkyMall loses its captive audience

Who hasn’t flipped through SkyMall while sitting on a plane? The catalog is filled with strange items that no one would purchase in normal life, but which seem particularly attractive in the middle of an aluminum tube hurtling through space at hundreds of miles per hour or while creeping along the tarmac in an airplane airport jam.

However, with WiFi on board many airplanes, this catalog is having problems and is trying to adjust to the new reality of non-stop TV and Internet that takes from its main platform catering to bored passengers.

For the last two decades, SkyMall has been a symbol of America’s love affair with kitsch and a respite for bored airline passengers. But the magazine needs a digital game plan to avoid domination by other online retailers such as

“They need to look at new products,” Phibbs said. “How many elevated pet food bowls do I need?”

The Federal Aviation Administration eased restrictions last year on the use of portable electronic devices, allowing passengers to keep their smartphones and tablets powered up during takeoffs and landings. And about half of domestic flights offer wireless Internet access.

SkyMall Chief Executive Kevin Weiss says he understands such market realities. “Like everything else, we have to evolve,” he said.

The Blue Screen of Death at 30,000 feet

TSA is creating for itself and a phalanx of others a new mission — protection of the aviation world from cyber threats. To that end they are buildling a cybersecurity campus near Ft. Meade outside of Washington, DC. Since there have long been claims that, “the computer networks underpinning the U.S. air traffic control system could be penetrated by malicious hackers,” such an aviation cybersecurity headquarters was deemed justified.

The new government and industry information-sharing program is meant to defend, “…the entire system. It’s the airports, the [air traffic management] system, the supply chain, the airline manufacturers. There are a lot of attack surfaces there,” said Fred Schwien, the director of Homeland Security at Boeing, which is participating in the program.

Cyber threats to aviation are among the oldest and most feared, since they could cause massive damage and loss of life. One of the first major cyber attacks to attract officials’ attention in Washington occurred in 1998, when a teenager broke into a Bell Atlantic telephone network and disabled the communications system at a regional airport in Worcester, Mass. The hacker cut off communications to the control tower and turned off a transmitter that allowed incoming aircraft to turn on runway lights. The teenager, who later reached a plea agreement with the Justice Department, exploited a flaw in the phone system that let him also disable communications with the fire department, airport security, and the weather service for six hours.

The modern air traffic control system may fare no better than that airport in Massachusetts.