Should Police Have the Ability to Track and Disable Self-driving Vehicles?

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
should police have the ability to track and disable self driving vehicles

Autonomous vehicles have created an endless series of unanswerable questions. As the technology continues to advance, decisions on how best to implement it have not. We’ve yet to discern who is liable in the event of an accident, how insurance rules would change, if they can coexist effectively with traditional automobiles, how they will impact vehicle ownership in the long term, and the infrastructure necessary to ensure they’ll function as intended.

There’s also a myriad of security concerns involving everything from the very real prospect of vehicle hacking to automakers selling the personal information of drivers. Both of those topics are about to come to a head as automakers continue shifting toward connected vehicles.

In March, the U.S. Transportation Department met with auto industry leaders, consumer advocacy groups, labor unions, and others in an attempt to navigate the minefield that is autonomous integration. The department previously hosted similar roundtable discussions in December after releasing the new federal guidance for automated driving systems, called “ A Vision for Safety 2.0.” That guidance freed up automakers and tech firms to test self-driving vehicles with fewer regulatory hurdles to cope with.

However, the December report seemed to focus mainly on how little everyone outside the industry understands the new technology.

The government also acknowledged a lack of real consensus on any single issue and how that had to change before progress (or laws) could be made. The March talks were intended to remedy that, however new questions arose with no answers.

According to Reuters, a 39-page-summary of the meetings showed that a large number of participants “agreed that it is a question of when, not if, there is a massive cyber security attack targeting [autonomous vehicles]” and that “planning exercises are needed to prepare for and mitigate a large-scale, potentially multimodal cyber security attack.”

The government is aware that autonomous vehicles pose the risk of a future catastrophe and are open to new vulnerabilities. But it’s less certain on how to cope with that or take preventative measures — which seems like an issue that should be addressed.

If that’s not dystopian enough for you, law enforcement officials expressed an interest in being able to control self-driving vehicles.

These officials considered the usefulness of not only stopping the vehicles in emergency situations but also actively being able to reroute them to a destination of their choosing and controlling their functions. As helpful as this would be in preventing high-speed chases, the idea that the government could lock you inside of your own vehicle is genuinely terrifying. Fortunately, meeting participants said opening up such avenues for the police could also create new opportunities for high-tech terrorists.

However, it does sound like the government still wants new tools for law enforcement that stem from autonomous and connected-car technologies. While the police may not be able to stop your vehicle and lock you inside, they will probably be able to track it remotely.

“At the end of the day, policymakers likely need to answer 10 to 15 key questions,” said Derek Kan, the Transportation Department’s undersecretary for policy, according to the summary. “These range from things like, how do you integrate with public safety officials? Should we require the exchange of data? What are our requirements around privacy or cyber security? And how do we address concerns from the disability and elderly communities?”

The disabled and elderly are demographics that stand to benefit from self-driving vehicles. However, the blind would still need a special way to interact with them. The same could be true for the elderly — who are less likely to feel comfortable with them. Likewise, would a person need a valid driver’s license to own and operate an autonomous vehicle? If so, wouldn’t these communities be limited to autonomous cabs, which already serve a similar purpose as traditional taxi services?

That probably depends on how the vehicle is designed. With no controls, there likely isn’t any reason to have a license. In January, General Motors filed a petition asking the Transportation Department for approval to deploy a fully autonomous car without a steering wheel or pedals as part of a new ride-sharing fleet slated for a 2019 debut. After reviewing GM’s petition for six months, there’s still no decision from the government.

Likewise, after a series of fatal incidents involving semi-autonomous features and self-driving test cars hit the news, the government withdrew some of its earlier support, adopting a more cautious approach. Legislation that would ultimately make it even easier for automakers to get thousands of self-driving cars on the road without human controls stalled in Congress. But these decisions can’t be idled forever.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said in San Francisco on Tuesday that “one thing is certain — the autonomous revolution is coming. And as government regulators, it is our responsibility to understand it and help prepare for it.”

The Transportation Department expects to release an update to its existing autonomous vehicle guidance later this summer. Hopefully, it addresses some of the issues brought up during the meetings, because we’re working without a net right now and nobody seems to have any idea of what should be done.

[Image: Ford Motor Co.]

Join the conversation
2 of 30 comments
  • Funky Funky on Jul 12, 2018

    We’re probably getting ahead of ourselves with this. There are still horse drawn carriages on our roads, as well as bicycles, motorcycles, and as noted in the article many traditional or outdated cars. The folks who are suggesting we move forward quickly with self driving cars, I believe, don’t fully grasp the real-world conditions in which the vehicles will operate. I’d suggest they get out from behind their computers and from inside of their cubical offices to see the real USA and gain a better understanding of how real folks live their lives and see how real folks utilize their vehicles. Integrating this type of technology into a system in which older modes of transportation are still used is problematic at best. Older modes of transportation will not just simply go away at the behest of the technological elite. The least of our concerns will be whether or not law enforcement personnel can track and/or disable a vehicle which has autonomous technology.

  • Sub-600 Sub-600 on Jul 12, 2018

    Lots of towns and villages will fold due to loss of ticket revenue. If autonomous cars don’t break any traffic laws, the gravy train stops and they’ll have to consolidate. In NYS we have many duplicate governments that serve little purpose other than graft through speed traps.

  • Stuki Moi If government officials, and voters, could, like, read and, like, count and, like, stuff: They'd take the opportunity to replace fixed license numbers, with random publicly available keys derived from a non-public private key known only to them and the vehicle's owner. The plate's displayed number would be undecipherable to every slimeball out there with a plate reader who is selling people's whereabouts and movements, since it would change every day/hour/minute. Yet any cop with a proper warrant and a plate scanner, could decipher it just as easily as today.
  • Dukeisduke Is this the one that doesn't have a back window? Like a commercial van?
  • MaintenanceCosts My rant seems to have disappeared, but suffice it to say I agree with 28 that this is a vehicle about which EVERYTHING is wrong.
  • SCE to AUX Welcome to the most complicated vehicle you can buy, with shocking depreciation built into every one.And that tail - oh, my.
  • FreedMike Can these plates be reprogrammed on demand to flash messages at other drivers? If so, I'd like to flash "Is your insurance paid up?" to tailgaters.