A consortium of researchers dedicated to improving the understanding of the human causes and consequences of terrorism

A Smart Bomb in Every Garage? Driverless Cars and the Future of Terrorist Attacks

The following is part of a series of thought pieces authored by members of the START Consortium. These editorial columns reflect the opinions of the author(s), and not necessarily the opinions of the START Consortium. This series is penned by scholars who have grappled with complicated and often politicized topics, and our hope is that they will foster thoughtful reflection and discussion by professionals and students alike.


Over the four years of the Syrian insurgency, rebel groups have demonstrated extraordinary ingenuity in turning regularly available consumer electronics into crude but effective weaponry.  One of the most striking examples was the “Sham II,” an improvised armored vehicle constructed of armor plate welded to an automobile chassis.  The most ingenious bit of technological improvisation in this vehicle was the primary weapon, a 7.62 millimeter machine gun that was remotely operated via a PlayStation controller from the relative security of the vehicle’s interior.[i]

But what if the rebel group could have used an armored, driverless vehicle as the platform for the Sham II?  Such a weapon would not only provide greater safety for the militants, but could be blown up remotely should the need arise, effectively making it a cruise missile on wheels.

This is much more than a theoretical counterfactual. One of the most concerning terrorist groups of today, the militant group Daesh, also known as “The Islamic State” or “ISIS,” makes extensive and effective use of car bombs driven by suicidal members.  What if they could reliably deliver their bombs without sacrificing their combatants?  More disturbing, what if heretofore less lethal groups already operating in Europe and the United States could gain the advantages of a vehicular suicide bomber without the challenges of recruiting, radicalizing, and training the bomber?  These are questions we must consider as the promising new technology of driverless vehicles becomes established over the next few years.

A New Era in Driving

“After a lifetime of driving, repairing and studying automobiles, I have come to an unavoidable conclusion – we are the weakest link in a car. As car components go, human beings are deeply substandard – we have imperfect perception, we are ruled by emotion, and we vary wildly in quality.”

                                                                                    Peter Cheney, The Globe and Mail[ii]

In May 2015, Google announced that prototypes of its newest generation of autonomous cars would be hitting the streets in California over the summer, all part of the company’s ambitious plan to put America firmly on the road to driverless vehicles by 2020.  Google, along with several major automobile manufacturers, has invested heavily in autonomous vehicle technology over the last several years, and driverless cars have now travelled thousands of miles with an admirable safety record.  There are few significant technological hurdles to be overcome, so the main question is how quickly the transition from human to computer drivers will occur.

The potential benefits of such a shift are many.  Automobile accidents currently kill more than 30,000 Americans every year, with the majority of those accidents being caused by operator error. Automated vehicles should reduce this number tremendously.  Furthermore, there are a great many Americans—millions of elderly people or people with physical disabilities—who are currently unable to operate a car safely and would benefit immensely from access to driverless vehicles.  In addition, the potential to network and coordinate autonomous cars will significantly reduce congestion on the nation’s highways, saving time and reducing pollution and fuel consumption.

Rather than technological, the existing hurdles to introducing this potentially revolutionary technology are for the most part social and legal.  For example, if an autonomous vehicle were to cause an accident, who would be responsible?  The passengers, even if they had no influence?  The vehicle manufacturer?  The software developer?

These concerns focus on an important issue—what happens when something goes wrong.  Accidents will always happen and new technologies will inevitably fail in surprising ways.  So while this is a necessary and valuable discussion, to this point there has been little public discussion devoted to a related issue—the deliberate misuse of the technology.  Driverless vehicles could easily be perverted into a ghastly weapon—a guided missile making full use of sophisticated electronics to direct it interactively to its target in real time.  The first precision guided munition used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War was, after all, a cruise missile guided by the same GPS technology that guides driverless cars.[iii]

Concerns regarding the potential misuse of technologies such as GPS are nothing new.  More than a decade ago, experts on the “precision revolution” in American munitions noted that the commercial availability of such systems could provide “economical precision weaponry—previously available to only the most sophisticated armed forces—to nearly everyone.”[iv]  The U.S. government is already worried about hobbyist drones being used as terrorist weapons and in January 2015, convened a meeting between members of the US military, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FAA to address these concerns.  Driverless cars have the potential to be a much greater threat than commercially available drones ever will be.[v]  Potentially more damaging, however, would be the over-reaction and backlash that such an attack might produce.

It is therefore necessary that we begin a public discussion regarding potential misuse before the technology has matured.  If thinking with regard to security—preventing intentional misuse of the technology—consistently accompanies thinking with regard to safety—preventing accidental misuse—it is plausible that engineers will be able to build in safeguards to reduce both the risk of deliberate misuse and to aid in forensic investigation and attribution of blame. 

From Bombs to Car Bombs

“The car bomb provided an efficient container and an efficient delivery system. It yielded far greater administrative, industrial, and economic damage for a given operation.  And it required fewer volunteers to place it on target.”

                                                                        -Sean MacStiofain, Revolutionary in Ireland[vi]       

In May 2015, the extremist group Daesh group captured the city of Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, after nearly 17 months of conflict.  The most important weapon in Daesh’s arsenal during this successful offensive has been the car bomb.  During the first three weeks of May alone Daesh deployed no fewer than 57 car bombs (vehicular born improvised explosive devices—VBIEDs), most of which were piloted by suicide bombers.[vii]  These bombs killed and injured hundreds.  The majority of Daesh’s vehicular bombs were armored Humvees that were originally given to the Iraqi military by the United States and were later captured by Daesh.  Humvees are the delivery vehicle of choice since they are armored, making it difficult to stop them by killing the driver, carry a large payload, and have off-road capability.  The combination of American armored vehicles and jihadi suicide bombers has become so effective that JIEDDO (Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization), the unit created by the Pentagon in 2006 to combat IEDs, is now hurrying to develop appropriate counter-measures.[viii]

The VBIED is the product of many years of technological innovation by militant groups.  Stationary bombs have been a mainstay of guerilla and terrorist groups for decades, and no less a figure than Che Guervara detailed the virtues of roadside bombs in his treatise “On Guerilla Warfare.”[ix]  Sean MacStiofain, one of the leaders of the provisional IRA, oversaw the addition of car bombs to the IRA’s arsenal in the mid-1970s because of the numerous advantages that they provided.  Car bombs soon came to be used by militant factions in Lebanon’s civil war for the same reasons.

Interactive Guidance

“The simplest method of obtaining target discrimination is through its recognition by intelligence.”[x]

                                                                                    -National Defense Research Council, 1946

There was, however, a major limitation to the car bomb.  For decades it remained essentially a stationary mobile bomb.  That is, the militants still needed to stop the vehicle and get away, complicating planning, and limiting their ability to place the bomb on target in real time.  Militants solved this problem of real time interactive guidance on December 15, 1981. 

On that day, a suicide bomber drove a car packed with explosives into the compound of Iraq’s Embassy in Beirut.  The driver detonated the explosives, causing a massive blast that leveled the building, killed 61 people, and injured more than 100.  Among the dead was Iraq’s ambassador to Lebanon Abdul Razzak Lafta.[xi]  This was the first known suicide bombing in the Middle East.  Within the next two years there were five more high-profile suicide bombings in Lebanon that killed hundreds, including the massive car bombs that leveled the American Embassy in Beirut and the U.S. Marine Barracks at Beirut International Airport, both in 1983.  Throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s suicide bombing spread throughout the world and was used by militant groups in many different ways.  As suicide bombing became a regular form of attack VBIEDs remained the most lethal variant by far.

It is still relatively common to view suicide bombing through the lens of individual pathology—to see each suicide attack as the act of a deranged individual with no regard for human life.  It is, however, far more appropriate to view suicide bombing as a form of technology—a type of guidance system that allows human intelligence to affect delivery and detonation of a bomb directly in real time.  As I have explained in my book The Business of Martyrdom: A History of Suicide Bombing, such a conceptualization allows us to see the bomber for what he or she really is—a flesh and blood substitute for the costly, sophisticated electronic guidance systems developed by advanced states.[xii]  VBIEDs and their kin truly are smart bombs, the smartest yet developed, which is why between 2001 and 2013 suicide bombings killed on average 4.5 times more people than any other form of terrorist attack.[xiii]

 Terrorist groups may well promote their suicide bombers as heroes or martyrs, but in reality the bombers are disposable control elements whose destruction is a necessary and anticipated part of the attack.  Training young people so that they are willing and able to accept their role and take their own lives at a time and place that the group determines is one of the greatest challenges that militant groups must manage to maintain a campaign of suicide bombing over time.  Making the GPS technology technology that nation-states use for their precision guided munitions— readily accessible to militants by integrating it into vehicular control systems runs the risk of making vehicular smart bombs more accessible.

“Our Answer”

“To me, the robot is our answer to the suicide bomber.”

                                                                                    Bart Everett, US Navy Researcher[xiv]

Much of the funding for research into autonomous vehicles came from the American government, driven by a desire to reduce military casualties by removing as many people as possible from the battlefield.  The benefits provided by unmanned vehicles such as drones are so significant that their use has increased exponentially over the last decade to the point that they now provide surveillance, targeting, and weapon delivery around the world. 

In contrast to suicide bombing’s low-tech approach, drones and other autonomous vehicles represent another path toward intelligent guidance.  This is a high-tech, hardware and software intensive path that has drawn upon many different academic fields to produce electronic substitutes for human powers of cognition.   

This transition to autonomous vehicles in both civilian and military life promises tremendous benefits but will at the same time impose costs.  One of those costs is the simple availability of the technology.  In his analysis of the impact on robots and warfare, author Peter Singer cautioned about what he calls “Open Source Warfare,” by which he meant the ability of states simply to buy off-the-shelf hardware and software and to reconfigure them, effectively eliminating the decades of costly research that countries like the United States have invested in these technologies—and of course undermining the advantages these technologies were intended to confer on their developers.[xv]

The idea of “Open Source Warfare” waged by states is consistent with the appropriation of technology by non-state actors and it is easy to imagine both being very interested in autonomous vehicles.  If such technology was originally meant to be our answer to dealing with the challenges posed by suicide bombers, there is no reason to think that other groups and states might end up viewing it as their answer to the problem of developing a weapon as effective as the suicide bomber.


“What if cars could become our trusted partners?”

                                                                                    -Daniela Rus, MIT Researcher[xvi]

It is almost certain that as autonomous vehicles become more reliable and available someone, somewhere, will try to use them as a weapon.  Even under the best of circumstances autonomous vehicle technology promises to be very disruptive and many people will have reason to be anxious about the social impact of the shift to driverless vehicles.  A destructive attack utilizing such vehicles might be the catalyst that could transform such concern into genuine fear and resistance.

It is therefore necessary that consumers have reason to feel confident that the developers of these vehicles have taken into account the need for both safety, in the form of accidents, and security, in the form of deliberate misuse. 

While there is no shortcut for dealing with the social impact of such a revolutionary change in driving, there is every reason to expect that an ongoing, systematic effort to manage issues of both safety and security can produce a set of measures that will deter uncommitted potential attackers, prevent more determined individuals and groups from carrying out attacks successfully, and guarantee the rapid apprehension of any that do successfully mount an attack using the technology.


[i] Robert Beckhusen, “PlayStation Controlled DIY Tank May Be the Wildest Weapon Yet in the Syria War,”  http://www.wired.com/2012/12/rebel-armor/, accessed 08/27/2015

[iii] Richard D. Easton and Eric F. Frazier, GPS Declassified: From Smart Bombs to Smartphones (Lincoln, NB: Potomac Books, 2013), 110.

[iv] Michael Russell Rip and James M. Hasik, The Precision Revolution: GPS and the Future of Aerial Warfare (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2002), 335.

[v] Kevin Poulson, “Why the US Government is terrified of Hobbyist Drones,” http://www.wired.com/2015/02/white-house-drone/

[vi] Sean MacStiofain, Revolutionary in Ireland.  (Edinburgh: Gordon Cremonisi, 1975) 243.

[vii] For a detailed analysis of recent attacks with links, see “Aftermath of the Fall of Ramadi in Iraq,” Musings on Iraq blog, May 25, 2015, http://musingsoniraq.blogspot.com/2015/05/aftermath-of-fall-of-ramadi-in-iraq.html

[ix] Che Guevara, Guerilla Warfare Chapter 1 “General principles of Guerilla Warfare.”

[x] Guided Missiles and Techniques, Summary Technical Report of Division 5, National Defense Research Committee, Volume 1 (Washington DC 1946) 198.

[xi] “Bomb razes Iraqi Embassy; 25 die” Chicago Tribune Dec. 16, 1981, A3; the final tally of 61 deaths was reported the following month.  “Rescue Efforts End in Beirut” New York Times January 12, 1982, A3.

[xii] Jeffrey W. Lewis, The Business of Martyrdom: A History of Suicide Bombing (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012).

[xiii] Institute for Economics and Peace, Global Terrorism Index Report 2014, p. 32; available at www.economicsandpeace.org

[xiv] Quoted in Peter W. Singer, Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century (New York: Penguin Press, 2009), 62.

[xv] Ibid, 267.

[xvi] Michael Leiedke, “Toyota Joins with Stanford, MIT in Driverless Research,” Columbus Dispatch 5 September 2015

Jeffrey Lewis, Ph.D., is a lecturer in the International Studies Program for The Ohio State University, where he has taught for more than 10 years. Lewis's research focuses on the history of science and technology, particularly their importance for national policy and security concerns.His well-received book "The Business of Martyrdom," which he began as a START postdoctoral student, has been billed as the only comprehensive history available of suicide bombing from its origins in Imperial Russia to the current day.  "The Business of Martyrdom" examines the bombers, their societies, and the organizations that train and sponsor them.


Research Area