How Autonomous Vehicles Will Change Law Enforcement

The following op-ed was published this weekend in the Salt Lake Tribune.

There’s been a lot of chatter in recent years about the game-changing technology of self-driving cars, and rightly so. This revolutionary approach to transportation could solve many big problems, from increase mobility for the blind to a profound increase in productivity by eliminating wasted time.

Most importantly, with over 40,000 deaths last year due to driving accidents — most from human error — fully autonomous cars could substantially reduce the risk involved in getting where we need to go.

Some industries may become obsolete. If taxi drivers are feeling the heat now from Uber and Lyft, imagine the threat automation poses. And truck drivers might not be needed, replaced by computers that don’t require sleep.

But there’s one impact that has been entirely overlooked amid all the discussion: automated vehicles are going to profoundly change law enforcement.

Consider the case of Kyle Savely, an out-of-stater who was driving westbound through Utah along I-80 in late 2016 when he was stopped by Utah Highway Patrol. He wasn’t speeding or driving recklessly. Instead, he was pulled over for allegedly following another vehicle too closely.

The trooper requested permission to search Savely’s car, but the driver did not give his consent. So a drug dog was called and allegedly “alerted” on the vehicle, giving the officer the legal justification to detain Savely and search the vehicle.

No drugs or contraband was found — only cash. Savely was issued a citation for following the car ahead of him too closely and was released. UHP kept the cash.

This is called civil asset forfeiture, and it amounts to legalized theft. No criminal allegations were made against Savely, yet officers used the roadside stop as a fishing expedition to see what they might find. And it happens throughout the country, day after day. A recent Washington Post analysis found that hundreds of millions of dollars are taken in cases just like Savely’s.

Imagine a system of connected autonomous vehicles in which the operators are perfectly compliant with each state’s driving laws because it’s hardwired into the programmed code. Savely wouldn’t have had his money taken. He never would have been stopped in the first place.

Known as “highway interdiction,” the process of pulling drivers over and looking for other violations of the law is widespread and routine. It is a core aspect of modern law enforcement. Far from mere traffic safety and enforcement, it turns cops on streets into roving investigators using the traffic code as a pretext to pull anybody over they think looks suspicious.

And that includes racial minorities. People of color are more likely to be stopped, and more likely to be searched once detained, than their white counterparts. No data indicates that white people are less likely to come to a full and complete stop at a stop sign or use their blinkers for two seconds before changing lanes, but officers use these violations more discriminately against those of another ethnicity.

Autonomous cars would once again eliminate this problem. And imagine the area of DUI enforcement — not only would the issue itself be largely resolved by having impaired people safely chauffeured home by their smart car, but all of the law enforcement resources allocated to DUI enforcement would nearly disappear. And yes, that means many police officers will likely lose their jobs due to obsolescence.

This future won’t come too quickly; the technological connectivity required for this level of automation is not ready for prime time. Also, a recent poll found that almost 80% of Americans fear traveling in a autonomous car. But the lure of increased safety and freeing up wasted time behind the wheel will be strong and eventually persuade most of us to adopt the rapidly improving technology. The world will become a better place since 90% of vehicle crashes are caused by human error.

And Utah is ahead of the curve. Much of the state’s transportation infrastructure is embedded with fiber optics that can provide the technology backbone needed to communicate with autonomics vehicles passing along the surface above.

This new technology will surely require us to readjust our behavior patterns and personal preferences. But for law enforcement, it stands to undermine and make irrelevant many current practices and efforts.

After all, if every vehicle is automatically obeying traffic laws, what’s the point of traffic cops at all?