Automated Vehicles Will Present New Challenges for Criminal Enforcement

As we move towards a future of fully automated vehicles, the types of crime – and attendant need for criminal enforcement – committed with cars is likely to evolve. As our transit system becomes more automated, the danger of a hack, and the difficulty of discovering the crime through ordinary policing tactics, is likely to increase. Some experts have expressed concerns that automated vehicles would be just as easy to use for delivery of drugs or guns as for more innocuous packages. Others, such as Duke University professor Mary Cummings, say that vehicles are too easy to hack and steer off course.

Going beyond relatively ordinary crimes such as theft, an unclassified FBI report obtained by The Guardian revealed the agency’s concern that autonomous vehicles could be commandeered and utilized as a “potential lethal weapon” or even self-driving bomb.

The likelihood that automated vehicles will generally obey the traffic laws complicates the ability of police to find crimes being committed with these vehicles using traditional methods. As I have written previously, traffic stops prompted by minor violations are a point of contact at which cops often look for evidence of more serious crime. While there is some hope that a reduction in such stops may reduce racial bias in policing, it also highlights the need for law enforcement to reduce dependence on this method of tracking serious crime.

While the potential for criminal activity or even terrorism using automated vehicles is a real possibility, some experts are less concerned. Arthur Rizer, from the conservative think tank R Street Institute, argued that the lives saved by adoption of driverless technology will far outweigh any risk of criminal or terror threat from a hacking. Rizer calls the risk “minute compared to the lives that we will save just from reducing traffic accidents.”

If a significant portion of the roughly 40,000 traffic fatalities per year can be prevented by the adoption of automated vehicles, Rizer is likely correct that the benefits will outweigh any risk that vehicles will be hacked by bad actors. Nevertheless, there is a possibility that, as CalTech professor Patrick Lin warns, automated vehicles “may enable new crimes that we can’t even imagine today.” Going forward, it will be important for law enforcement to develop new techniques of tracking crime facilitated by automated vehicles.