Outlook on the Autonomous Hostile
Vehicle Threat

by Shelomo Alfassa, MPA, CEDP


April 2020 © VIRSIG, LLC.

An ISIS terrorist planned to place explosives in a driverless car and use a laptop and a camera to control the vehicle remotely.[1] He had already constructed and tested improvised fuses, and planned to use gun powder and nitrocellulose to construct explosive devices for use in an attack.[2]  According to law enforcement, he wanted to use the vehicle so “no one had to martyr themselves” in the process.[3] Yet, while this is a true case, the feasibility of this threat actor succeeding, was minimal.


Ever since the reality that nascent autonomous vehicles were being rolled out, has been the growing concern that such vehicles could be used in a hostile attack.[4] To prepare for hostile vehicle attacks, government buildings, commercial establishments and other mitigation-focused enterprises often employ protective architecture infrastructure designs to keep pedestrians, buildings and motor vehicles separated, as well as anti-ram barriers and crash-rated bollards to defend perimeters. For decades such preparations have been made for vehicles being operated by human threat actors—but now the concern has turned to vehicles operated without humans.


Unmanned systems (UMS) are categorized by the SAE International into Level 1 to Level 5, with five being the most autonomous.[5] A Level 5 UMS receives its mission from a human and accomplishes that mission with or without further human-robot interaction (HRI); such vehicles are “steering wheel optional.”[6] The level of HRI, along with other factors such as mission complexity, and environmental difficulty, determine the level of autonomy for the vehicle. Still, while these vehicles currently function at high levels of automation and are rapidly evolving, slow testing, high costs, government restrictions, and limited availability are hindering their rapid development.[7] [8]


Autonomous vehicles have not been highly successful as of late.[9] Many experts in automotive and technology sectors agree early self-driving predictions have been overly optimistic. Ford CEO Jim Hackett stated Ford had overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles. Ford’s first self-driving car is still coming in 2021; however, “its applications will be narrow, what we call geo-fenced, because the problem is so complex.”[10] Tesla’s CEO Elon Musk had over-promised on self-driving cars and while he promised to have one drive across the United States on its own, videos have shown the car unable to navigate outside its lane, and slowing and/or stopping when it should not.[11]


Recently, the FBI assessed Level 5 autonomous vehicles and found that though they are likely an emerging threat in the long term, they are unlikely to supplant conventional methods of deploying an explosive payload for at least three to five years (2023-2025).[12] This provides the FBI with an opportunity to engage the industry and anticipate ways domestic threat actors could misuse the technology.

In theory, while autonomous vehicles likely would provide threat actors a remote attack capability, they are likely to continue favoring conventional vehicle attack methods until such vehicles are more widely deployed. The coming years will allow the automakers to perfect the technology, while giving engineers, law enforcement and government legislators time to increase target hardening perimeter security strategies, to protect life and property from autonomous hostile vehicles.


[1] This occurred in London; the man convicted was an Iraqi refugee who was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

[2] The Guardian. (2019, Jul 24). Man jailed for 15 years for driverless car bomb plot. London, UK.

[3] BBC. (2019, Jul 24). Farhad Salah jailed over driverless car bomb plot). London, UK.

[4] Jenkins, BM & Butterworth, BR. (2018, May). An analysis of vehicle ramming as a terrorist tactic. Security Perspective. Mineta Transportation Institute / San Jose State Univ., San Jose, CA.

[5] SAE. (2014). Automated driving: Levels of driving automation are defined in new SAE International Standard J3016. Society of Automotive Engineers International; London, UK.

[6] Sperling, Ed. (2017, Aug 3). The year of autonomous cars. Semi Conductor Engineering; San Jose, CA. Sperling (the editor), indicates autonomous vehicles will take 2-3 more decades to become viable.

[7] Collet, C. & Musicant, O. (2019, Apr 24). Associating vehicles automation with drivers functional state assessment systems: A challenge for road safety in the future. Front Hum Neurosci. 13: 131. www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6503868/

[8] Fagnant, DJ. & Kockelman, K. (2015, July). Preparing a nation for autonomous vehicles: opportunities, barriers and policy recommendations. Transportation Research. Part A: Policy and Practice Volume 77, 167-181.

[9] For a contemporary comprehensive discussion on emerging autonomous vehicles, see: Hancok, PA; Nourbakhsh, I; & Steward, J. (2019, Apr 16). On the future of transportation in an era of automated and autonomous vehicles. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2019 Apr 16; 116(16): 7684–7691.

[10] Naughton, K. (2019, Apr 9). Ford CEO tamps down expectations for first autonomous vehicles. Bloomberg.com

[11] Kelley Blue Book. (2019, Mar 21). 2019 Tesla Model S - Review & Road Test. Youtube. youtu.be/O8TvYQZEOvo

[12] FBI. (2020, Apr 6).  Autonomous unmanned ground vehicles unlikely to be a practical option for an explosive attack for at least three to five years, despite technological progress. (Unclassified) Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate (WMDD); Washington, DC.

Shelomo Alfassa is Director of Communications and a homeland security analyst for VIRSIG, LLC. He has worked in Public Safety for 25 years, and has served with FEMA on several deployments as Deputy Commander of a national CBRN team (G8 Summit, the Atlanta Olympics, etc.). He is a Certified Emergency and Disaster Professional (CEDP); has a BA in Homeland Security and an MPA in Emergency Management. 

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