Can Technology Stop the Use of Autos as Weapons?

Increasingly, terrorists are using motor vehicles to plow into crowds of pedestrians. Many cars are now equipped with cameras and radar sensors that activate automatic braking systems. Can these devices help stem the attacks?

A deadly attack last week on Christmas shoppers in Melbourne, Australia, was straight from the playbook being used by terrorists in recent years around the globe: the killer used a vehicle to plow into a crowd. Authorities are looking to the auto industry for technological solutions, reports the Associated Press. Many new vehicles in the United States are equipped with technology that causes them to automatically stop if someone walks in their path. Emergency braking systems automatically stop vehicles before a collision if a driver doesn’t react, though it’s not foolproof. “For sure the technology is there to detect the pedestrians. The technology is there to automatically brake the vehicles,” said Jeremy McClain, director of technology in North America for Continental Automotive Systems.

Most systems now, including Continental’s, let the driver overrule the vehicle’s computer, largely because the systems have only a few camera or radar sensors and may pick up false signals. Some systems will automatically stop a vehicle if the driver doesn’t, while others will slow it to mitigate crash damage. Already some are sophisticated enough to detect people who are walking. One version of Toyota’s safety system has sensors that will stop a car from moving in a parking lot if they detect something in its path, even if the driver accidentally hits the gas instead of the brake. The systems are rapidly getting more accurate with laser sensors, and more powerful computers and artificial intelligence are being added as the industry rapidly moves toward self-driving cars.