Talk of self-driving automobiles is everywhere. Uber has already implemented a driverless service in cities such as Pittsburgh, and has logged more than two million miles with them. General Motors plans to release a totally driverless car next year that doesn’t even have a steering wheel.

The Ford Motor Company has gone one better, filing for patent protection on a self-driving cop car that would use artificial intelligence “to find good hiding spots to catch violators of traffic laws.” The patent application indicates that the car “may, through machine learning” identify impaired drivers through observation of a “sudden stop, meandering movement, abnormal lane changes or the like.” The robot car would flash its lights to tell you to pull over, scan your driver’s license, and then “decide” whether to give you a ticket. A human officer riding along could arrest the driver if necessary, and could override vehicle settings preventing the car from violating traffic laws itself.

It isn’t hard to imagine an autonomous police presence. We’ve all seen movies like Robocop, after all. Robotic cops would be invulnerable to excuses, flirtation, and bribery. Officers no longer would have to fear violence from drivers during routine traffic stops, and drivers wouldn’t have to worry about jittery cops who might overreact and shoot someone during a traffic stop. Those are all valid arguments in favor of the idea, we suppose.

But privacy concerns and doubt about how the robots would or could actually perform are major issues. For example, a human officer’s discretion, wisdom, and compassion – valuable characteristics in any event – would be out the window. And privacy is already under attack because of increased use of technology by police. License plate readers, for example, have been placed near gun shows and mosques, and can be used to reconstruct the activities of people who were not previously suspected of a crime. Additionally, those plate readers create issues similar to those we discussed in our series on traffic cameras. For example, some Texas police departments use devices provided at no cost by a company named Vigilant Solutions. The devices identify plates matched to people with unpaid fines; cops then pull those vehicles over and give the drivers a choice between jail and roadside payment, with 25 percent of any such payment going to Vigilant.

Self-driving cop cars could easily collect far larger amounts of data on the daily routines of law-abiding citizens and therefore implicate our civil liberties to a far greater extent. As another example, we may soon get to the point where facial recognition software is good enough that computers can track a person’s location based solely on the person’s face. An automated cop car just driving around capturing everyone’s face is an Orwellian nightmare come true.

It may be impossible to stop the advance of technology. It is not impossible, however, to prevent at least some of that technology from being used by the already-awesome power of The State.

Charles V. Hardenbergh
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