Would Timothy McVeigh have ever been arrested if he were riding in a driverless car? On that fateful April day in 1995, McVeigh was pulled over when state trooper Charlie Hanger observed a yellow Mercury pass him without a license plate tag which resulted in the arrest of McViegh. Twenty years later, law enforcement is on the cusp of a new technology that could make traffic stops such as McVeigh’s obsolete. Driverless cars may seem futuristic, but they will be here quicker than most expect.
Currently in Pittsburgh, PA, Uber is testing a fleet of fourteen driverless vehicles in the city’s downtown area. While these cars do have an individual at the wheel to take control when
needed, riders who have experienced these vehicles agree that the computer does the majority of the driving. While the test may sound futuristic and gimmicky, these driverless Uber vehicles are push to make autonomous cars mainstream in the very near future.
While some may expect that near future to be far away, today there are luxury cars considered semi-autonomous. Tesla, Mercedes, BMW, and Infiniti offer vehicles with hands off steering. Even in non-luxury vehicles many semi- autonomous features are available today. Many vehicles can parallel park themselves correctly the first time, rather than the usual two to three attempts it usually takes (Am I the only one that is horrible at parallel parking?). Many vehicles today offer lane departure warning systems, forward collision warning systems, drowsy driver alerts, and other features on moderately priced models such as the Ford Fusion. In some 2018 models, General Motors plans to offer hands off steering for highway conditions and other automakers plan to follow suit with their versions of full speed adaptive cruise control, a fancy name for hands off steering, by 2019 models.
In essence, those driving new vehicles today are blazing the pathway for autonomous cars.
There are two popular theories involving the future of autonomous cars. Uber’s theory is that removing the driver from cars will drastically lower the costs of ride-hailing services. The average cost currently for these services is $1.30 per mile. Compare this to an assessment by Citi Bank showing a roundtrip commute in Los Angeles costs an average of $16 daily. So if Uber and Lyft can lower the costs of their services significantly with driverless cars, this will be significantly cheaper than owning a car. If you think about your vehicle, you spend tens of thousands of dollars for a car that sits in your garage, driveway, and employer’s parking lot for the majority of its life. Uber is attempting to change this traditional thinking of cars sitting unused and spur people to forgo owning cars completely.
The other popular theory is similar to Uber’s theory; however, it involves the auto makers themselves providing a fleet of vehicles. Rather than owning a specific 2017 Ford Fusion SE, an individual will lease the right to have a certain brand and model car come and pick them up within minutes of the passenger requesting a ride. The vehicle will pick up the individual at their home, drop them off at work, and then respond to other on-demand requests. When the individual is finished for the day, a similar type of car will perform the return trip home, with deviations as needed. With the power that the automobile industry has in the U.S., I see this as a more plausible theory. Though, I believe that we will individually own cars, even autonomous ones, for many decades.
So why should law enforcement care about autonomous cars? According to a 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey, almost 60% of contacts between police and an individual are related to a vehicle. 26 million people were involuntarily stopped by police in 2011 for traffic infractions. An additional 5.4 million individuals came in contact with police due to traffic incidents. Autonomous cars are programmed to obey all traffic rules and reduce accidents. Thus, where do the 26 million traffic stops occur when we no longer drive our cars. This impacts the job security of policing foremost. With a predicted accident reduction of 90% and traffic violations becoming rare, the need for traffic enforcement will disappear along with the sworn and support personnel who are responsible for this duty. The significantly reduced revenue obtained from traffic violations could also impact state, county, and local budgets potentially leading to downsized police forces.
The same 2011 survey shows that around 4% of people stopped for traffic violations are also searched by police. Many of these searches result in arrests on more serious charges, such as the arrest of Timothy McViegh. The cars that drive themselves perfectly will mitigate the number of overall arrests due to not having reasonable cause to pull over these vehicles. If the vehicle is owned by Uber or the automaker, traditional penal code violations such as broken taillight, rear view mirror obstruction, or tinted windows will no longer be cause to pull over these vehicles. In the case that one is pulled over, there is an ongoing debate on whether autonomous cars will negate the need for driver’s licenses. Thus, will citizens be required to obtain identification? This is currently being fought by numerous privacy abdicate groups in states imposing voter ID laws. There are also Fourth Amendment considerations that could impact these abilities to have the right search autonomous cars when pulled over.
Ownership of the vehicle is another potential issue. In 2015, Mountain View Police pulled over one of Google’s self driving cars for impeding traffic. The vehicle was traveling 25
mph in a 35 mph zone and was causing a significant traffic back up. Due to sensors in the vehicle, the vehicle observed the flashing lights and pulled over for the traffic stop. As the officer approached the car, he realized no one was driving the vehicle. After discussing the incident with the passenger, the officer used his discretion that the car was not impeding traffic after all. However, if the car was guilty of the infringement, who would receive the ticket? Some states that recognize autonomous cars are assigning liability to the person who turned the autonomous function on. The legality of assigning blame between individuals and car manufactures will become hotly debated as these cars become more popular.
There are also other potential serious issues to consider. Self driving cars could enable getaway vehicles to speed away while occupants in the vehicle could concentrate on preventing police from stopping them, such as firing weapons at pursuers. There is also the possibility of these cars becoming the ultimate vehicle borne explosive device, no driver needed. Lastly the reduced presence needed for traffic management could reduce police presence, diminishing the crime deterrence that this presence provides. Autonomous cars could potentially raise crime rates due to their safe driving features.
Despite the potential negative aspects of these cars, there are numerous benefits. A police car that drives itself while on patrol allows cops to concentrate on other important items. The technology could enable faster response times as sensors will allow emergency vehicles unimpeded access and mitigate the risk of collisions in intersections. Another prediction believes patrol cars could outsmart criminal cars due to better algorithm processing software. Lastly these cars will be connected to everything. Smart Phones, Smart Homes, and Connected Cars are quickly becoming more than buzzwords. These vehicles will hold treasure troves of digital intelligence information when individuals use these cars to commit crimes.
The time to be proactive about self driving cars is now. They will be available within the next few years and will bring major changes to the organization and procedures of policing. Leadership needs to be proactive by working with legislators regarding the law. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick brought Uber to cities before governments could impose regulations and he is doing the same with driverless cars in Pittsburgh. The Department of Transportation recently issued their driverless cars standards; however Department of Justice input appears to be missing from these standards.
Secondly police must begin to understand the technology in these cars. This includes not only the sensors driving the vehicle, but also what allows these cars to connect with the outside world. That’s where Juliet Bravo Solutions can fill this gap. We’re on the forefront of connected cars and introducing it as a significant piece of evidence to your investigations. While cars may not drive themselves completely today, the connected car technology is currently in most vehicles. With many crimes involving the use of a vehicle, mostly for transportation; a treasure trove of evidence is waiting to be explored. Contact us today for more information about upcoming connected car classes and be on the forefront of 21st century policing.