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Michael Anderson, Deseret News
Utah State University researchers are building a fleet of miniature vehicles. Associate professor of engineering Ryan Gerdes said their research will improve the security of autonomous vehicles before the vehicles hit the road.

LOGAN — While companies like Google and Ford show off their designs for futuristic, self-driving cars, associate professor of engineering Ryan Gerdes wants to know how to break the vehicles.

"Autonomous vehicles will be hacked in the future," Gerdes said. His team wants to prevent accidents caused by hackers taking control of those vehicles.

Gerdes and a team of engineering students at Utah State University will work to improve the security of autonomous vehicles before they ever hit the consumer market. The research is backed by a $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant.

Gerdes believes the robotic cars of the future will help solve a lot of problems.

"Right now in America, we lose about a trillion dollars every year to congestion in our roadways," Gerdes said. "We also have about 40,000 deaths annually."

While Gerdes says his team could never create a hack-proof system, their focus is to make sure cars can adjust safely if a malicious vehicle is on the road or if someone tries to manipulate information or traffic data the cars receive.

"We also need to know how we can trust and verify information that is being passed from vehicle to vehicle," Gerdes said.

Researchers are building their own fleet of miniature vehicles they will eventually test and crash. The steel-reinforced miniatures will drive in formations, similar to what we see on the highway today. They hope to start testing within several months.

"That's the great thing about being a security researcher. We do get to break things," Gerdes said. "The hard work, and the really rewarding work, is from making sure things don't break."

Email: manderson@deseretnews.com