The Impact of Autonomous Vehicles on Traffic Stops: Self Driving Cars No Substitute to Occupant Diligence on the Road

Starting next year, it is likely that New York City will be the nation’s latest urban area to serve as a test ground for autonomous driving technology. The development followed New York governor Andrew Cuomo’s announcement that the state is now accepting applications for autonomous vehicle testing on public roadways. So far, General Motors has been involved with entering its requests for year-long testing of a small number of semi-autonomous Chevy Bolts in lower Manhattan. The proposed testing area is composed of a five-square mile-radius, and the state seems on track to accept GM’s application in time for testing to commence by early 2018.

However, concerns about the dangers accompanying NYC’s congested streets and busy foot traffic, have led to a number of limitations being implemented. During public roadway testing, the driver’s seat must be occupied by a licensed driver at all times. Moreover, no road test of the autonomous capabilities of a vehicle, under the announced plan, may be conducted without the direct supervision of New York state police, as well as an insurance policy of at least $5 million. In other words, state police must be present for every road test, and each vehicle tested must, at minimum, be insured up to $5 million. This is in addition to autonomous vehicles needing to comply with all “applicable federal motor vehicle safety standards and New York state motor vehicle inspection standards.” Concern about exposing NYC streets to cars built by startups that have yet to reliably meet government inspection standards, is also expressed by the requirement that applications may only be submitted by manufacturers of “autonomous vehicle technology or companies creating such technology working in conjunction with manufacturers.”

Yet, in spite of such added precautions, GM, at least, is no stranger to testing self-driving technology on major city streets. Testing with Chevy Bolts in San Francisco’s downtown area has been going on for almost a year.

Given all the progress made in self-driving technology, questions about the impact, if any, autonomous vehicles will have on police traffic stops have been raised. One article published on the topic by Wired magazine proposes that autonomous vehicles will put an end to traffic stops altogether, thereby essentially putting an end to racial profiling by police on public roadways.

This prediction is supported by a number of considerations. Many self-driving vehicles, once widely implemented, are likely to be owned by large companies devoted to picking-up and dropping-off occupants. Accordingly, the passengers of such vehicles will not be responsible for their operation and maintenance. Yet, while life without a car has been widely embraced in NYC, states with larger rural landscapes, such as North Carolina, are less likely to follow suit anytime soon. Even residents of North Carolina’s relatively urban Research Triangle area are often hard pressed to find a grocery store within walking distance, and most folks enjoying country living in one of the nearby counties are lucky to be within a 10 minute drive. Thus, while ridesharing platforms such as Uber and Lyft are no doubt active in most rural states, it is hard to imagine why anyone would choose that form of transportation over car ownership, when ownership is an affordable option.

Moreover, the article makes infers that when truly autonomous driving technology becomes operable, most of the vehicles owned in the United States will be self-driving. However, as noted by the author, “a recent-model car with adaptive cruise control, lane assist and collision avoidance . . . possesses the technology to drive itself.” It is questionable whether such features will be affordable by most households in the near future. Adaptive cruise control was first introduced by Mercedes-Benz in 1999, and has remained synonymous with premium car features since then.

It is also implied that autonomous vehicles will not be susceptible to pretext stops, where police stop vehicles over minor traffic violations with the purpose of investigating whether a more serious crime is being committed. Yet, one need not be the driver of a vehicle to be cited for a traffic violation. In North Carolina, a police officer witnessing certain minor acts by passengers, such as unintentional littering and failure to wear seatbelts, are sufficient to allow temporary detainment of a vehicle. Indeed, a report from the American Civil Liberties Union revealed the dangers of seatbelt violations as a mode of racial profiling. The report found that black motorists in Florida are stopped and ticketed for seatbelt violations nearly twice as often as whites statewide, and “up to four times as often in certain counties. Therefore,

to say that self-driving cars will be the change in society that finally puts racially discriminatory policing to rest is doubtful. Until a better solution in law is created to address the issue, autonomous vehicles will not replace the excessive diligence often required of racial minorities traveling public roadways.