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Will autonomous vehicles improve highway safety?

Autonomous vehicles show promise in decreasing motor vehicle collisions, but the need for strategic assessment of their impact on law enforcement is great


Similar to the threat of national or corporate computer hacking or a cyberattack on financial institutions and the national power grid, self-driving cars can be hacked.


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By Joseph J. Kolb, MA

It may be years before there is large-scale proliferation of autonomous vehicles on America’s roads, but the reality is this emerging technology will have an impact on highway safety. But how will these vehicles affect safety, driver responsibility, and law enforcement tactics and strategies?

What is an automated vehicle?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) identifies five levels of what constitutes an autonomous vehicle, which forms the basis for delineating potential accountability between the driver and system manufacturer:

  • Level 1: Driver Assistance - The vehicle is controlled by the driver but includes some driver assist features in vehicle design
  • Level 2: Partial Automation – The vehicle has a combination of automated functions – like acceleration and steering – but the driver must be engaged in monitoring the driving environment
  • Level 3: Conditional Automation – The driver is necessary, but not required to monitor the driving environment. The driver should be prepared to take control always, with notice.
  • Level 4: High Automation - The vehicle can perform all driving functions under certain conditions. The driver may have the option of controlling the vehicle.
  • Level 5: Full Automation – The vehicle operates independently, performing all driving functions under all conditions. The driver may have an option to control the vehicle.

    A 2016 Rand Corporation Report – “Autonomous Vehicle Technology: A Guide for Policymakers” – estimates automated vehicles will have a significantly positive impact on collision rates, traffic congestion, fuel consumption, emissions and even parking space congestion. This latter point conjures images from the 1960s TV cartoon “The Jetsons” where the vehicle can drop a worker at their office then self-drive to a parking facility.

One of the main benefits of automated vehicles is they can help combat driver distraction. Automated technology has been gradually integrated in most vehicles over the past two years to include:

  • Forward collision warning and braking;
  • Rear cameras for vehicle reversing;
  • Lane departure warning systems.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates the above technology can decrease accident rates by one-third, which could even reduce insurance rates.

Lawmakers are weighing dealer and driver regulations, vehicle road specifications, tort guidelines and costs. There has been little discussion about the public safety implications of this technology.

With this technology still in its infancy, it is an opportune time for law enforcement to analyze risk factors and make specific recommendations that address the following areas.

1. The dangers of driver complacency

Arguably one of the most fundamental downsides to this technology is how driver complacency overshadows driver distraction. Rather than texting and peeking at traffic, vehicle operators will now be totally immersed in most previously citable driver distraction activities and disengaged entirely from the driving process. What happens if there is a system failure and the driver is called upon to quickly respond to traffic conditions?

In these instances, if the vehicle crashes, lawmakers are going to have to weigh the culpability of software/technology failure over the fundamental responsibility of a vehicle owner. Is the manufacturer or the vehicle owner culpable? NHTSA currently avoids addressing this concern, which will ultimately impact insurance rates either for the owner of the vehicle or the manufacturer. If it does affect the latter, these costs will undoubtedly be passed along to the vehicle owner.

“These are among many important questions beyond the technical considerations that policymakers are working to address before automated vehicles are made available,” states NHTSA on its website. “We are still many years from fully automated vehicles becoming available to the public.”

This raises the point of licensing what will now be called vehicle operators, especially in Level 3 and 4. What safety mechanisms are in place for an operator to override the system and manually take control of the vehicle? What is their proximity to controls? The reality is, technology has its benefits but regardless of manufacturer promises and claims, will always be prone to failure.

Tragically, such a failure occurred on March 18, 2018, when a self-driving car operated by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian who was walking her bicycle in Tempe, Arizona. The car was in autonomous mode, but had a human riding along to take control of the vehicle if necessary, according to the Tempe Police Department. A week later Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey suspended Uber’s ability to test self-driving vehicles in the state. In a letter sent to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi, Ducey called the incident an “unquestionable failure” to meet public safety expectations. The NTSB is investigating the incident.

2. The potential for cyberattack

Similar to the threat of national or corporate computer hacking or a cyberattack on financial institutions and the national power grid, self-driving cars can be hacked. The question then becomes: Which mechanisms are in place to protect vehicle directional systems? Think of the chaos that could be caused with a cyberattack on vehicle directional systems. A vehicle thief would no longer need to break into a car and hotwire it as they can simply hack into the vehicle’s computer system and drive the car without even touching it. So while other traffic indicators may decrease, there could be disturbing spikes in vehicular thefts.

According to NHSTA, a multi-layered approach to cybersecurity is being promoted by focusing on a vehicle’s entry points – both wireless and wired – which could be potentially vulnerable to a cyberattack. NHTSA claims a layered cybersecurity system will reduce the possibility of a successful vehicle cyberattack, and mitigates the potential consequences of a successful intrusion. This approach to vehicular cybersecurity is predicated on:

  • A risk-based prioritized identification and protection process for safety-critical vehicle control systems
  • Timely detection and rapid response to potential vehicle cybersecurity incidents on America’s roads;
  • Architectures, methods and measures that design in-cyber resiliency and facilitate rapid recovery from incidents when they occur;
  • Methods for effective intelligence and information sharing across the industry to facilitate quick adoption of industry-wide lessons learned. NHTSA encouraged the formation of Auto-ISAC, an industry environment emphasizing cybersecurity awareness and collaboration across the automotive industry.

3. DUI and drug smuggling

The Rand report specifically identifies automatic vehicle technology as contributing to lower DUI rates since the driver is not behind the wheel operating the motor vehicle. But what if a “driver” is impaired? How will they program their destination unless it is pre-programmed before they partake in drug or alcohol use?

As farfetched as it may seem, this technology could be conducive to narcotics smuggling, especially in a Level 5 vehicle where there is no driver. Law enforcement will need to revise its strategies and technologies to allow for traffic stops of automated vehicles if there is a suspicion of narcotics trafficking, as well as tracking of who actually would be responsible for the crime. Will law enforcement be able to override an AV system to pull the vehicle over? Since there is no driver to question, this could be an arduous process.

While automatic vehicle technology purports to promise a reduction in MVAs and highway congestion, there is still much that needs to be considered strategically and technologically for law enforcement to effectively adapt to this unique challenge.

About the author

Joseph J. Kolb, MA, is the executive director for the Southwest Gang Information Center, master instructor for the New Mexico Law Enforcement Academy and instructor in the Criminal Justice program at Western New Mexico University.

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