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Self-Driving Cars Mean Cops Won't Have Excuses to Pull People Over

It also means cops will have a lot more data for their investigations.

by Joseph Cox
Jun 30 2017, 2:00pm

Sirtravelalot/Shutterstock

No one is speeding. There are no cops pulling people over for broken tail-lights. And no new viral video of a police officer shooting someone during a traffic stop.

"If everyone is driving around in self-driving cars programmed to exactly follow the traffic rules, you won't have traffic enforcement and you won't have pretextual stops," Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University who recently tweeted about how autonomous vehicles may change policing, told Motherboard in an email.

From how data generated by cars is collected and accessed, to consequences on police powers to stop vehicles, self-driving cars may have an impact on law enforcement, according to legal professors.

Indeed, if humans are not driving cars, there is no need or excuse for police to keep tabs on and pursue people who are speeding or driving recklessly: that role simply won't exist. (Of course, how authorities may deal with a rogue autonomous vehicle is something else).

As Kerr explained, cops won't be able to carry out pretextual stops; these are when police pull over someone for a traffic violation in order to investigate the suspect for another crime. And from that, the logical consequences of fewer traffic stops would be fewer cases of abuse of, or escalation from, these powers. This would likely save lives: There are many instances of simple traffic stops turning into deadly situations (Ray Tensing, a Cincinnati police officer, was recently cleared of murder after he shot and killed Sam DuBose during a traffic stop, for instance.)

Autonomous vehicles won't spring up and be equally spread out among society over night, though.

"Self-driving cars will alter this arrangement; there's no doubt. What's more interesting to me is the degree to which this will be lumpy or unevenly distributed," Elizabeth Joh, law professor at UC Davis School of Law, told Motherboard in an email.

"In the near term, more affluent people will adopt self-driving cars and they will be subjected to the post-hoc information policing Orin describes," she added. "But the less well off will presumably continue with traditional cars for a while, and they'll be subjected to the same regime as they experience now. Will that make things even worse in terms of how policing is perceived?"

Law enforcement agencies have already obtained data from vehicles in a selection of investigations. But as self-driving vehicles roll out, which by their design are constantly transferring data between themselves and other devices or systems, who can access that data, and how, is going to be up for debate.

Joh pointed to the Carpenter case around cell phone location data. This case, which the Supreme Court is going to consider, hinges on whether cops need to get a warrant to obtain a cellphone's historical location records. A similar sort of argument may translate over to tracking the location of autonomous vehicles too.

"What the Supreme Court does in the Carpenter case will be, as most people expect, hugely significant. How this third party data is controlled and distributed will have a big impact on privacy and policing," Joh said.

With that in mind, maybe self-driving cars will spur need for more legislation specifically for this new technology. Perhaps, as Kerr says, "a new Autonomous Vehicles Privacy Protection Act," or something of that nature.

"Like the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, but for automobile trips instead of e-mails and phone calls," Kerr told Motherboard.

Motherboard staff is exploring the cultural, political, and social influence of the iPhone for the 10th anniversary of its release. Follow along .