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The cameras on a pilot model of a self-driving car are displayed at the Uber Advanced Technologies Center in Pittsburgh.
Justice Lab

Driverless Cars Are Coming. What Does That Mean for Policing?

An end to traffic stops and hot pursuit. Arrest by drones. And new tricks for terrorists.

If you’ve ever been pulled over for a broken taillight and suffered a punishing fine — or worse — you can take heart that this experience will be obsolete in a generation. Not because police are going soft, but because you won’t be doing the driving.

Autonomous vehicles are coming, and with them some challenges for law enforcement that police forces have barely started to contemplate. Say goodbye to such staples of policing as the high-speed chase and the roadside stop.

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

Ticketing the occupants of self-driving cars would be futile, predicts Schafer, a co-author of “The Future of Policing” and member of Police Futurists International, a group advocating “improving criminal and social justice” through “long-range planning and forecasting.” Riders in driverless cars probably won’t own the vehicles, which would more likely be part of a Google or General Motors fleet picking up passengers and dropping them off all day long. In that case, riders wouldn’t have responsibility for operating or maintaining the cars, and couldn’t be charged with failing to signal or driving with a broken taillight.

Driverless cars may seem like a distant fantasy, but they’re right around the corner. Automakers and tech companies are spending billions of dollars to be the first to bring fully autonomous vehicles to the market. Ford is promising to do so by 2021, and there are near-fully autonomous taxis in Singapore and minibuses in Switzerland.

Uber has just deployed its much ballyhooed service in Pittsburgh using self-driving Ford Fusions, albeit with a driver and engineer aboard. Semi-autonomous cars may even be in your driveway: 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 humans entirely from the equation is for the cars to better learn to read and respond to the roads.

Various predictions place a fully driverless society at 10 to 30 years away. That means police departments need to begin today to develop tactics and equipment that aren’t dependent on cruising and pulling people over. They haven’t done so, says Schafer.

“For the last decade, I’ve been talking to police executive training programs about the future of policing,” he says. “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. 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.’”

So what’s the big deal if police can no longer make traffic stops? It’s about half of what police do, says Schafer. He estimates such stops, along with traffic accidents, account for nearly 50 percent of all police-public encounters.

Then there’s the more controversial pretext stop, where officers pull a motorist over for a minor violation in order to investigate a potentially more serious crime. To many African Americans, it’s racial profiling. For cops, it’s one of the most valuable tools of policing, says Bernard Levin, a retired professor of psychology at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, Va., and a co-author of “The Future of Policing.” While many activists would welcome an end to the offense of “driving while black,” Levin calls pretext stops the “major means of catching people when we don’t know who we’re going for.”

As for more mundane traffic enforcement, cameras at stop lights and speed monitors are already rendering police cruising obsolete. Along with providing 24/7 traffic enforcement at a fraction of the cost of flesh-and-blood officers, the cameras are capturing video of more serious crimes as they occur.

Put propellers on those cameras and you have drones, by the way. Could that 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.”

Technology is great, Levin agrees. But, he adds skeptically, it won’t 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 has already 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, bid goodbye to the high-speed chase, 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 of 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. 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. You can certainly have central control.”

If authorities know which vehicle carries the suspect , it could be individually disabled remotely (or for that matter, the car could be instructed to child-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, Va.?”

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 the book “Future Crimes.”

“Take the suicide bomber out of the mix and now you can have that very same threat delivered to your doorstep autonomously,” he says.

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