According to this morning’s Daily Telegraph, ministers intend to introduce ‘driverless’ lorries onto British motorways next year.

The model, which has been trialled in the US and Europe and which the Government has spent £8.1 million testing, involves a convoy of three HGVs with only one driver. The latter vehicles take their cues from the manned one at the front.

Elsewhere in the same paper we read that Nippon Yusen KK, a Japanese container shipping firm, intends to remotely pilot one of its vessels across the Pacific Ocean to North America.

Apparently the industry believes that automation will not only save costs, but will prevent accidents as the majority are currently caused by human error.

Yet a third story, this time in The Times, puts a less optimistic spin on this drive for automation: one of the possible explanations for the recent crashes by US Navy vessels is remote Chinese interference with their navigation systems. Per the article:

“The US navy did not rule out sabotage, including cyberattacks, when it launched an investigation into the second fatal crash this year involving a Pacific fleet ship. However, it said there was no specific evidence of foul play. The former commander said that there was a possibility that the steering on the US ship or the tanker could have been hacked and that the Chinese vessel may have played a part in this.”

Ever-increasing automation, partnered with the growth of networking and internet connectivity, is not without risk. It seems likely that anybody who can hack a military warship could do the same to a remote-controlled merchantman, whilst the risks posed by automated lorries, in light of the recent trend towards vehicular terrorism, are obvious.

Nor would such things even be vulnerable only to states or well-resourced terrorist groups. Individuals and groups of hackers have proven quite capable of causing havoc already, and linking our homes and cars up to the internet will only lengthen their reach.

Self-driving vehicles and other forms of automation pose plenty of ethical challenges, such as what their priorities should be in the event of a collision, or what to do with the vast numbers of people who make a living driving road freight in countries like the US.

Given that, the prospect of hackers staging remote hijackings may seem a little sci-fi to take seriously. But its important that this is addressed if this new technology is to be embraced by the public: it might only take one or two incidents to turn opinion against driverless vehicles, and the shale gas industry can attest to the fact that a strong economic case is only so much use against a strong headwind of public scepticism.

The Govenment are clearly keen to give self-driving technology a fighting chance. If so, the best time to develop proper security measures is alongside these projects in their trial stages. This would both help safeguard against potential problems but be an investment in allaying popular concerns.

Ministers should make sure they have the safety angle covered before trying to take human hands off the steering wheel, or they may never be allowed to.