Police & Autonomous Vehicles: How Will That Work, Exactly?

August 31, 2015

Here's what we know about autonomous cars:

1. They're coming.

2. Their arrival will be piecemeal, via a range of autonomous features, which will eventually merge into fully self-driving vehicles.

3. Autonomous technology could be accepted by the mainstream within five or ten years.

4. Autonomous vehicles will smooth out traffic, save lives, and slash city budgets.

5. Autonomous vehicles could cut the cost of owning a car by $1,000 a year and may spell the death of auto insurance.

6. Autonomous vehicles will probably upend the entire auto industry.

7. Self-driving cars will also expose us to hackers unless automakers and component-makers become hyper-vigilant about security.

But here's an interesting question: what will autonomous vehicles do for the police?

A recent article published in Slate suggests that baddies will have a tough go of it, getting anywhere in self-driving vehicles -- which isn't surprising. There are already dozens of gizmos to track down missing vehicles. There are also systems and technologies that allow law enforcement agents to slow and stop cars that have been stolen or are being driven by criminals. 

But could Johnny Law take things too far?

Author Will Oremus cites a passage from a recent RAND study that envisions a couple of intriguing/worrying future scenarios:

"Imagine a law enforcement officer interacting with a vehicle that has sensors connected to the Internet. With the appropriate judicial clearances, an officer could ask the vehicle to identify its occupants and location histories. … Or, if the vehicle is unmanned but capable of autonomous movement and in an undesirable location (for example, parked illegally or in the immediate vicinity of an emergency), an officer could direct the vehicle to move to a new location (with the vehicle’s intelligent agents recognizing “officer” and “directions to move”) and automatically notify its owner and occupants."

Situations like these raise countless questions about autonomous cars and the right to privacy. For example, do police need a warrant to search an autonomous car's hard drive? The scenario is similar to that posed by "black box" recorders found on most modern vehicles, which can be accessed by law enforcement under certain conditions -- but then again, maybe not. And if not, can police access all the data on the hard drive, or just some of it? Can they access it remotely, while the car is in use?

Throw in wearable devices, smartphones that connect to the internet via in-car routers, and many other always-on, always-connected technologies, and you see the problem. The minutiae of our lives are recorded via our constant interaction with apps and websites, email and social networks. If the police suspect someone of wrongdoing, why shouldn't they be allowed to access that information in the interest of public safety? 

Thankfully, part of the RAND study -- which was commissioned by the National Institute of Justice -- involved discussing these matters with a panel of experts in the fields of criminal justice and technology. The experts' #1 priority at the moment involves creating a system of policies and procedures for dealing with autonomous cars. (If only they'd do the same for license plate readers.) Least important to them? Creating ways for police to take control of autonomous vehicles.

Do you have any other worries about autonomous cars and law enforcement? Can privacy co-exist with this kind of technology? We think it can, but it requires a lot of thoughtful planning. Share your own concerns below.

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