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Don’t fear the robot car bomb
Patrick Lin   Aug 19, 2014  

Within the next few years, autonomous vehicles—alias robot cars—could be weaponized, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) fears. In a recently disclosed report, FBI experts wrote that they believe that robot cars would be “game changing” for law enforcement. The self-driving machines could be professional getaway drivers, to name one possibility. Given the pace of developments on autonomous cars, this doesn’t seem implausible.

But what about robotic car bombers? If car bombs no longer require sacrificing the driver’s life, then criminals and terrorists might be more likely to use them. The two-page FBI report doesn’t mention this idea directly, but this scenario has caused much public anxiety anyway—perhaps reasonably so. Car bombs are visceral icons of terrorism in modern times, from The Troubles of Northern Ireland to regional conflicts in the Middle East and Asia.

In the first half of 2014, about 4,000 people were killed or injured in vehicle bombs worldwide. In the last few weeks alone, more than 150 people were killed by car bombs in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, and Thailand. Even China saw car bombings this summer.

America is no stranger to these crude weapons either. In the deadliest act of domestic terrorism on US soil, a truck bomb killed 168 people and injured about 700 others in Oklahoma City in 1995. That one explosion caused more than $650 million in damage to hundreds of buildings and cars within a 16-block radius. In 1993, a truck bomb parked underneath the World Trade Center killed six people and injured more than a thousand others in the ensuing chaos. And earlier this year, jihadists were calling for more car bombs in America. Thus, popular concerns about car bombs seem all too real.

But what do automated car bombs mean to criminals and terrorists? Perhaps the same as anything else that is automated. Generally, robots take over those jobs called the “three D’s”: dull, dirty, and dangerous. They bring greater precision, more endurance, cost savings, labor efficiencies, force multiplication, ability to operate in inaccessible areas, less risk to human life, and other advantages.

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Dr. Patrick Lin is a former IEET fellow, an associate philosophy professor at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, and director of its Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group. He was previously an ethics fellow at the US Naval Academy and a post-doctoral associate at Dartmouth College.


On the basis of reading the entire piece: Personally, I am more worried about small drones, which are incredibly cheap and widely available compared to something like self-driving cars.

From the larger piece:

“But this analysis is too pat. Part of the point for some guerilla fighters—though probably not for ordinary criminals—is martyrdom and its eternal benefits. So, dying isn’t so much of a cost to these terrorists, but rather more of a payoff. This demographic probably wouldn’t be tempted much by self-driving technology, since they are already undeterred by death.”

I am not so sure. Most militants are not suicide bombers who are a very rare breed. Such persons are expensive to train and then expended- and no doubt already have all sorts of mental health issues which make them operationally vulnerable. Their suicide is also often bought with promises to support the bombers family for life - an expensive obligation which terrorists organizations are locked into if they want to attract future suicide bombers.

I think terrorists would gladly exchange suicide bombers for a swarm of explosive laden drones in which the terrorist controlling them tries to remain alive until the end - like the attackers in Mumbai.

I think the solution here isn’t banning autonomous vehicles whether drones or self-driving cars things, but carefully regulating and tracking explosives. Along with, of course, dealing with the political issues driving terrorism by groups although not necessarily “lone-wolves”.

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