Is Law Enforcement Ready for Self-Driving Cars?

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Photo by PSYGMON via Flickr

Within a decade or less, thousands of self-driving cars could be zooming on American highways, but law enforcement is still a long way from addressing the safety and criminal issues posed by sharing the road with traditional vehicles, warns a panel convened by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ).

The panel, comprising researchers from the RAND Corporation and the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), as well as selected police, industry and traffic safety leaders, recently identified 33 challenges—including 17 “high-priority” ones—that need to be addressed before vehicles operated by Artificial Intelligence create what it called a “radically altered reality” for law enforcement.

“The autonomous vehicle revolution will reinvent the ways that people and goods are moved, cities and roads are planned, and transportation resources are deployed and conserved,” the panel declared.

“The question is how soon — not if — driverless vehicles become common sights in driveways and rear-view mirrors.”

Noting that law enforcement is being forced to play “catch-up” with the fast-paced technology developed by companies competing to dominate the coming driverless-car market, the panel said the “challenges of crime-stopping, traffic control, public safety, and cybersecurity on the road can only grow as more human drivers give way to algorithms.”

The challenges listed by the panel range from developing ways to facilitate communication with a “responsible human being” who may be controlling the car remotely during a traffic stop or emergency, to intercepting autonomous cars smuggling drugs or people.

Others include:

      • Developing standards for checking documentation of cars on the road when there are no humans to display a driver’s license or registration.
      • Developing a way to stop and secure autonomous cars that are behaving erratically and endanger other cars or human drivers;
      • Providing ways for a traffic police officer to communicate with the artificial intelligence systems driving the vehicle; and
      • Developing shared protocols between law enforcement and the artificial intelligence engineers driving this new segment of the automotive industry on methods to ensure traffic safety and adherence to rules of the road.

If the potential safety issues presented by driverless cars sharing the highway with traditional vehicles aren’t addressed, there could be a long road of trouble ahead for the police, the panel said.

“As the technology rapidly advances in coming years, law enforcement agencies must accelerate their preparation for a radically altered reality on the roads,” the panel concluded.


Cockpit of a Tesla self-driving car.  Courtesy Tesla website.

The race to develop and mass-produce driverless cars, led by companies like Tesla, Uber, Lyft and Google (now under Waymo), already looks like an obstacle course.

“This is one of the biggest technical challenges of our generation,” Dave Ferguson, an early engineer with Google’s self-driving car team, acknowledged in a recent New York Times interview.

When Tesla came out with its self-driving car, which was a simpler design meant for only highway driving, many crashes occurred.

An accident in September 2020 involving an Uber vehicle caused the death of a pedestrian, the first such fatality involving a driverless car. A test driver monitoring the car’s progress was charged in the incident.

The companies insist the initial rollout of the cars will be limited and cautious.

“[They] will be able to operate on a limited set of streets under a limited set of weather conditions at certain speeds,” said Jody Kelman, an executive at Lyft.

“We will very safely be able to deploy these cars.”

But before these cars can make it out of the driveway, not only do engineers need to improve their product, but law enforcement needs to buckle up for the ride.

The panel explored how specific scenarios, such as traffic stops, collisions and emergency stops, might be handled in an autonomous car setting.

Noting that tests have shown a high risk of crashes, the panel said police investigations will focus on vehicle’s mechanics rather than the faults or mistakes of a driver, and thus require greater knowledge of the cutting-edge electronics involved.

Law enforcement will also need to take into consideration how crime could evolve, as criminals could take advantage of this new technology and use autonomous cars to transport drugs or traffic people.

The scenarios addressed by the panel read like the plots for a sci-fi movie:

      • A hacker from a hostile regime is ready to electronically commandeer an autonomous armored car full of gold bars bound for a Federal Reserve Bank. What’s to stop him?
      • An autonomous bus rolls up to a patrol officer who is motioning to divert traffic around downed power lines? How could a driverless bus comply?

The full report can be accessed here.

Gabriela Felitto is a TCR Justice Reporting intern.

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