Self Driving Cars – Who’s Really In Control?

Autonomous vehicle manufacturers are looking to the law

In December 2018, an intoxicated driver fell asleep at the wheel of a Tesla Model S with Autopilot engaged. The car cruised down the road at over 70mph for several minutes, indicator blinking, before it could be stopped. The officers in pursuit were only able to tether the Tesla by surrounding it with police cars, knowing that Autopilot would slow down for obstacles. The incident highlighted a major question hanging over autonomous vehicle adoption – should law enforcers be able to control self driving systems?

Grand Theft Automation

The benefits of law abiding AVs are clear, especially in light of the Autopilot incident. Firstly, driver error is a top cause of road traffic accidents, so placing less responsibility on drivers is likely to lead to safer roads. If police officers could redirect a vehicle during its journey, drivers and passengers would be able to avoid delays or danger. The problem of car theft would also be reduced, as nobody would steal a vehicle that could be commandeered by the police.

In Arizona, Waymo has already built law enforcement protocols into its test vehicles. When the cars recognise flashing blue lights behind them, they slow down and pull over when it’s safe to do so. As of yet, Waymo are the first AV manufacturer to implement a provision of this kind. The cars can also distinguish between civilians and uniformed officers when they are stood in the road, following signals from the latter. Other automakers are cooperating with law enforcers too. Ford, for example, has worked with the Michigan police department for two years.

A tale of three cities

It’s not just automakers and police departments that are collaborating to solve the regulatory headache of AVs. Three US cities – Austin, Boston, and Las Vegas – are all working with digital traffic startup INRIX for smarter road use. INRIX has developed software that allows cities to add rules and obstacles to the advanced maps used by AVs, such as bike lanes and roadworks. The company’s next project is a capability that lets police officers update these maps in real time from their vehicles. In theory, police officers could direct AVs away from areas that might be dangerous, thus reducing accidents. INRIX’s mapping solution isn’t quite the same as actively taking over control of a vehicle, but it suggests a greater level of involvement for police forces.

Hold your horsepower

Let’s assume that autonomous vehicles, once commonplace, could be controlled by law enforcers. What impact will this have on manufacturers and users? Initially, collaborating with police officers will require more data sharing. The maps used by AVs, for example, must be sharable and editable, regardless of the manufacturer. Journey data will need to be available to judge how vehicles respond to officer commands, and to ensure that officers are accountable for their decisions. Manufacturers may also be encouraged, directly or otherwise, to make AVs ‘safer’ through speed caps, and by restricting certain manoeuvres like undertaking or tailgating.

A potential negative side effect of expanding permissions is that self drive systems may be at greater risk of hacking. Another consideration is the discouragement of private buyers. Why buy a car that can be controlled by someone else? In turn, we can expect that autonomous vehicles will largely exist in fleets. Interestingly, this is the model favoured by Waymo.

Even if a self driving car can recognise and respond to difficult scenarios on the roads, the legal question remains. Should police officers or any other authority be able to control something that is owned by a citizen? At what point is it acceptable to initiate control? What if an officer makes a mistake that causes harm? Thankfully, there has been an industry wide effort to tackle the legal grey area. Waymo’s test vehicles have demonstrated that AVs can work with law enforcement, but it’s worth remembering that Waymo runs as a fleet. Anyone who actually owns an autonomous vehicle will need to be fully aware of any compromise to control.

Drivers aside, the next consideration is whether automakers will really be comfortable sharing data, software permissions, and hardware control with external organisations. It won’t be long before wheel find out.

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