Autonomous vehicles to stop, roll down windows and unlock doors for law enforcement

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Autonomous vehicles are slowly becoming a reality with new developments being announced in the sector. However, these driverless vehicles pose a new set of problems for law enforcement. To address this predicament, law enforcement has indicated a need to identify and communicate with driverless cars. New technologies to aid law enforcement by making autonomous cars stop for police checks have also been proposed to address this potential issue.

A panel of experts from the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), RAND Corporation and Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) listed a number of needs for law enforcement in the time of driverless cars. The experts first met in 2019 to discuss potential issues that may arise alongside the adoption of autonomous vehicles. The panel issued its report this year, identifying 17 high-priority needs for law enforcement.

The panel’s report highlighted two main needs for cybersecurity and vehicle communication. It recommended research on systems that allow law enforcement to identify vehicles authorized to operate autonomously and to communicate with these vehicles. In addition, the panel also indicated the need for surveys to identify important data from the autonomous vehicle industry. This data can then be made available to law enforcement to help them investigate car crashes and other incidents.

The report also noted the need for model training and guidelines. These would be designed for existing police officers to familiarize them with how to interact with autonomous vehicles running on auto-pilot. It also exhorted manufacturers to list “descriptions of standard behaviors” for autonomous vehicles, such as pulling over the side of the road. Law enforcement will then be briefed on these standard behaviors to make them aware of what to expect with autonomous cars now plying U.S. roads.


The experts stressed the need for “proactive problem solving with law enforcement, autonomous vehicle manufacturers and operators, and communities.” They also remarked that all parties will benefit from this arrangement. Law enforcement would better understand the capabilities of autonomous vehicles, while vehicle firms would have a clearer view of their products’ implications from the viewpoint of law enforcement. (Related: US law enforcement officials say Americans should have no privacy because without it criminal investigations are more difficult.)

Law enforcement has a much larger purpose for understanding autonomous cars – and it’s not the good kind

However, many have criticized law enforcement’s apparent interest in autonomous vehicles. A March 2019 Medium article posited the question of who would police officers ticket in case an autonomous or driverless vehicle commits a traffic violation. The article remarked that operators, passengers in the vehicle, fleet owners and companies would be held liable for any infractions on the road.

But to make this easier, law enforcement officers will need to collaborate with autonomous vehicle manufacturers. Personal information provided by manufacturers can then help establish backdoor access to autonomous vehicles’ data, bolstering the need to issue traffic tickets to vehicle owners.

The panel’s report noted that “participants also saw opportunities to use data generated by autonomous vehicles … to support public safety and crime investigations.” Under this note, footage captured by an autonomous vehicle’s cameras while passing an active crime scene could be used as evidence. However, their report noted that privacy and intellectual property protections under the law should be accommodated. (Related: Civil rights vs. public safety: Police are using Google to acquire detailed records of your private activity.)

Despite the disclaimer, the mere fact that authorities would want remote access to an autonomous vehicle’s data is itself a threat to citizens’ privacy. While some technologies facilitate data collection, the rights of citizens providing this data should be protected from unscrupulous parties who wish to exploit sensitive information. People have the right to be protected against illegal and incriminating use of their data, even though for seemingly noble purposes such as crime prevention.

One such case of citizens’ data being used for a purpose other than originally intended happened in Singapore. Back in January, the country’s Minister of State for Home Affairs Desmond Tan said police can access data collected by Singapore’s COVID-19 contact tracing app TraceTogether. The minister added that the Criminal Procedure Code allows police to obtain any data for criminal investigations.

The Singaporean government originally said information from the TraceTogether app will solely be used for contact tracing. A month after Tan made the remarks, Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishnan introduced a bill in the Singapore Parliament limiting law enforcement access to the app’s data. His proposal, which passed Feb. 2, limited the use of TraceTogether data to seven serious crimes.

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