Autonomous Vehicles Will Mean the End of Traffic Stops

By Robin Washington

This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the US criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook, or Twitter. Originally published here

If African-American motorists—or drivers of any color—deplore being pulled over for a broken taillight only to be socked with more serious charges, they can take heart that the practice should disappear within the next 20 years. Not that racial harmony will be achieved or that a new polymer will make taillights indestructible. Rather, it’s that human beings won’t be doing the driving.

“I think you would see the end of traffic stops,” Joseph A. Schafer, the criminal justice department head at Southern Illinois University, says of the coming of driverless cars. “It radically changes police-public encounters.”

Schafer is a co-author of The Future of Policing and a member of Police Futurists International, a group describing itself as law enforcement and allied professionals focused on “improving criminal and social justice” through “long-range planning and forecasting.” Schafer predicts it would be futile to ticket the occupants of self-driving cars. The drivers may not own the vehicles, which could be part of a Google or General Motors fleet that picks up and drops off riders all day long. In that case, he passengers may not have any responsibility for operating or maintaining these vehicles.

While driverless vehicles may seem like a distant fantasy, they’re not far off. Uber has begun offering its service using semi-autonomous Ford Fusions in Pittsburgh. Automakers and tech companies are spending billions of dollars battling to be the first to bring fully autonomous vehicles to the market, with Ford promising to do so by 2021.

There are driverless taxis in Singapore and minibuses in Switzerland and, if you or your neighbor has a recent-model car with adaptive cruise control, lane assist and collision avoidance, it already possesses the technology to drive itself. All that’s needed to remove human drivers from the equation is for the cars to better learn to read and respond to the roads.

Various predictions envision a driverless society within 10 to 30 years. That means police departments must begin to develop tactics and equipment that aren’t dependent on cruising and pulling people over. They haven’t done so.

“For the last decade, I’ve been talking to police executive training programs about the future of policing,” says Schafer. “I would talk about autonomous cars. People looked at me like I was nuts”—until media attention focused on Google’s testing of autonomous cars.

Since then, officials have become more aware but still haven’t begun serious planning, Schafer says. “I’m dealing with people in the second half of their career,” he says. “Most assume they won’t be in law enforcement by the time it becomes an issue. Some are banking on it: ‘Man, this is going to be a headache. I’m glad I won’t be around to take care of it.’”

Losing the pretext stop—where officers stop a motorist for a minor violation in order to investigate a potentially more serious crime—is no small thing. Schafer estimates such stops, along with traffic accidents, account for roughly half of all encounters with the public. Bernard Levin, a retired professor of psychology at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, Virginia., and a co-author of The Future of Policing, calls it the “major means of catching people when we don’t know who we’re going for.”

Other innovations also are poised to make cruising obsolete, including cameras at stoplights and speed monitors that offer 24/7 traffic enforcement at a fraction of the cost of humans officers and that already capture video of more serious crimes as they occur. Schafer says patrol drones might be the next stage.

“You could have multiple drones with one person back at the station applying human judgment when something pops up,” says Schafer. “Unlike today driving around, they might observe a fight in process.”

Levin is skeptical that surveillance will supplant live policing.

“Most of policing isn’t about technology, it’s about people, and the technology is an add-on,” he says. “There still will be tremendous need for a street cop, a patrol cop, to go to where the problem is and help people solve the problem. Sometimes you help people by arresting them. Most of the time, you just talk people out and help them wind up better than they were. The drone doesn’t help you do that.”

The experts do agree, however, that innovations will make it far easier for police to quickly get to a scene, regardless of how they’re notified. Google already has received a patent on light detection and spacial recognition technology directing its driverless vehicles to clear the way for emergency vehicles. Expect future squad cars to add to a layer of redundancy by electronically announcing their presence to the traffic stream.

As for old-fashioned cops-and-robbers, high-speed chases are becoming obsolete too, says Levin. After John Dillinger and friends souped-up their getaway cars to leave Keystone Kops-style wagons in the dust, the high-performance squad car made its debut. But with the information explosion and cameras everywhere, the police chase today is not worth the risk, especially with accidents involving civilians, Levin says.

“I can go rob a bank in Sheboygan and 20 minutes later, they will have figured out who it is,” he says. “Once they know who it is, it’s not hard [to find them.] It’s very hard to go anywhere without leaving footprints.”

Yet like Dillinger, expect criminals also to embrace driverless technology. “A cop will tell you very quickly, ‘Gee, what you have now done is create a wonderful system for the transport of contraband,’” Levin says. He offers a solution: With fully autonomous cars and highways all interconnected, roads and vehicles could simply be powered off.

“Think of it as a bumper car ride in an amusement park,” he says. “You can certainly have central control.”

If authorities know which vehicle carries the suspect , it could be disabled remotely (or for that matter, the car could be instructed to lock its doors from the inside and drive itself to the police station.) But it’s more difficult if it’s a manhunt involving a random car among several miles of vehicles on Interstate 95. “How far back (do you go)?” asks Levin. “Are you going to stop the whole country every time you have one bad guy in Springfield, Virginia?”

Another futurist paints a more chilling picture, where the driverless world intersects with terrorism.

“The FBI actually put out a warning bulletin two or three years ago on what are called VBIEDs” — vehicle borne improvised explosive devices, says Marc Goodman, a global security consultant and author of Future Crimes. “Take the suicide bomber out of the mix and now you can have that very same threat delivered to your doorstep autonomously.”

You don’t have to wait for the future: Some cars already can park themselves with no one inside, and options like Tesla’s Summon feature allow the car to pull out of a space and drive itself to you a few dozen feet away. That’s just enough time and distance for a terrorist to set an explosive device and walk away into a crowd — leaving little time for police to react.

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