To Protect and Serve, But Not Drive: Police Use of Autonomous Vehicles

By: Geoffrey Wills

Introduction: Images of Knight Rider, Herbie the Love Bug, or HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey might be the first thing people think of when discussing artificial intelligence and self-driving vehicles, but that is quickly changing. While a self-driving car used to be just a pipe dream, an ever-increasing number of car manufacturers are taking off with the concept, but technology still needs to be developed and perfected before autonomous vehicles can be mass produced and used for daily use. Currently, fully autonomous vehicles have traveled safely at speeds up to 31 miles per hour. Car manufacturers including General Motors, Audi, Nissan, and BMW all expect fully autonomous, driverless cars to be in dealership showrooms by 2020.

As curiosity and demand for these vehicles increase, the need for understanding how the law applies to them also increases. This leads to an important question that could have major implications for the future: what if police departments use this technology to patrol the streets and keep cities safe? This note will analyze and attempt to answer these questions, and will also discuss the technological history of autonomous vehicles, as well as the evolution of applicable law that will dictate the use of these “driverless” cars. This essay will be broken down into several parts. Part I will give a brief rundown of how autonomous vehicle technology works. Part II will discuss the legality of vehicle automation and the technologies inside the car, including how many of these technologies not only currently exist, but are legally permissible for crime prevention and surveillance purposes. Part II will also look at social acceptability of autonomous vehicles patrolling the streets and enforcing laws. Finally, Part III considers how autonomous vehicles will have the capability to take subjectivity, discretion, and potential prejudice out of patrolling and traffic stops, as well as increasing officer safety and efficiency.

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