Ford has filed a patent application with the federal government in which it proposes plans for autonomous police squad cars that can monitor traffic and issue tickets and warnings for traffic violations. The autonomous squad cars could add an interesting facet to the legal gray area regarding the legality of tickets issued by red light cameras and speed cameras. The patent, filed back in July of 2016, is currently under review by the U.S. Patent Office and was published this month. Ford says that autonomous police vehicles will not necessary replace policing of motorways by human officers, but may be able to fully assume the duty of “routine tasks,” such as issuing tickets for running red lights, which can be automated. Those other tasks which cannot be automated will be left to human officers. Ford further says that police officers could potentially remain present in the autonomous squad cars at all times and reclaim control of the car when necessary. However, perhaps an alternative is possible where autonomous police vehicles fully police traffic without the assistance of human officers.
Ford layed out a few possible scenarios for how its idea could be applied to traffic policing. One involves a network of traffic cameras and sensors which register traffic violations along with information about the violating vehicle and relay this information wirelessly to a “central computing system” which deploys an autonomous squad car to pursue the vehicle and issue a ticket, warning, pursue until the arrival of a manned police vehicle, or follow other programmed protocols. A second scenario involves artificial intelligence programming in the autonomous squad cars which enables them to analyze traffic patterns to determine the best places to hide and catch speeders and red light runners, just like a real traffic cop does. Once in place to catch speeders, the vehicle would use some combination of laser and imaging technology to monitor traffic and engage in pursuit of violators. The autonomous squad car could engage in wireless communication with other vehicles on the roads and determine if they are self-driven or operated by a human. It could wirelessly transmit a traffic citation or warning to the offending vehicle’s computer system, which could in turn communicate information such as a driver’s license and registration back to the police car.
It is yet unclear how such a system of autonomous police car traffic policing would interact with the various red light and speed camera laws enacted across the fifty states. A great number of states have enacted laws which permit, limit, or ban the use of speed and red light cameras within their jurisdictions and municipalities. Where a state does not expressly allow or prohibit such traffic cameras, many municipalities operate camera programs which issue traffic citation anyways. Generally, the penalties are more lenient, fines are lower, and there is less likelihood of points deducted against your driver’s license compared to traffic tickets issued by human police officers. Such camera-issued tickets raise due process concerns for many reasons, including lack of any human witnesses and the lack of proof that the vehicle’s registered owner was operating the vehicle at the time of violation.
Autonomous squad car traffic policing could have wider implications on community law enforcement as well.
Local governments pursuing the “broken windows” strategy for law enforcement could potentially dial up the sensitivity or aggressiveness of the squad car computer programs in order to increase the number of citations issued. This strategy could also be used by rural counties for which traffic fines represent a significant revenue stream for the local government and judicial apparati. They could pursue revenue from traffic fines without having to pay an officer to sit idly beside low-traffic roadways. Furthermore, since minor traffic violations are often used as a pretext for human officers to stop and search persons deemed suspicious for other reasons, a major question exists regarding how an autonomous police vehicle would play into such a strategy. One possibility is that, in high-crime areas, autonomous squad cars and the persons they pull over could wait for roving human officers to make driver assessments. Civil rights challenges would undoubtedly follow.