Todd Humphreys to Lead Texas Effort in New DOT Research Center

November 2, 2020

photo of todd humphreysThe Department of Transportation (DOT) has awarded nearly $2 million to a national research consortium that includes lead institution Ohio State University as well as the University of California-Irvine and The University of Texas at Austin. The grant will create a new Tier 1 University Transportation Center (UTC). According to the DOT, these centers aim to “advance research and education programs that address critical transportation challenges facing our nation.”

Associate professor Todd Humphreys in the Department of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics will lead the center efforts at UT Austin. The UTC’s Principal Investigator is WNCG alumnus Zak Kassas, who is currently an associate professor at UC Irvine.

“Zak and I are looking forward to working together again,” Humphreys stated, adding that Kassas was instrumental in the consortium’s successful bid for the center. “We beat out at least a dozen other teams vying for this UTC.”

The researchers will specifically examine issues with Highly-Automated Transportation Systems (HATS). The rise in applications of this technology over the last decade is undeniable. Highly-Automated Vehicles like self-driving cars and self-flying air taxis not too long ago existed only in science fiction. Yet today, both have been successfully demonstrated, and we continue to move closer to seeing this technology become mainstream.

However, HATS currently rely too heavily on externally acquired positioning, navigation, and timing information. Not only does this create loss and attenuation problems, but it also leaves the system susceptible to security risks.

“There is a global trend of increasing interference, whether accidental or deliberate, in radio bands crucial for HATS,” the consortium’s proposal states. “Civil GNSS jamming and spoofing have evolved from a hypothetical threat, to an experimentally-verified vulnerability, to an emerging public safety hazard.”

Humphreys, a pioneer in the study of Global Navigation Satellite Systems, understands the urgency all too well. His team was the first to demonstrate crucial ways GPS can be exploited.

“We've long known that GPS, radar, lidar, cameras, etc., can be hacked in various ways,” Humphreys explained. “But with the emergence of highly automated vehicles that depend on a fusion of data from these sensors, the stakes have risen.”

Humphreys noted that high-risk projects—like the “flying car” demonstrated in Japan recently—have always prioritized safety, but now more than ever, it’s important to fully examine how to secure the systems against interference.

The potential risks of incomplete or misleading situational information are undeniable, from mere annoyances like increased traffic congestion to potentially fatal collisions.

“Security against hacking is now viewed as a core requirement for safety,” Humphreys said. “If automated vehicles are easily hacked, they will invite attacks, with potentially fatal results. We aim to test how hackable automated vehicle sensing is and to offer solutions for hardening them against attack.” 

Read the full story by the Wireless Networking & Communications Group