Preparing for a Future with Autonomous Vehicles

Some people may recall Knight Rider, the popular 1980s television show featuring the exploits of a technologically advanced Pontiac Firebird Trans Am, otherwise known as KITT, which could drive itself and render assistance to those in need. At the time, the thought of a self-driving car may have seemed like nothing more than a science fiction fantasy. Fast forward to the not-so-distant future, and that fantasy may become a reality, as vehicles that can drive themselves are on the verge of taking their place on roadways. Along with the rest of society, law enforcement agencies must ensure they are prepared for the advent of this autonomous vehicle technology, which will undoubtedly have profound and possibly unanticipated consequences.

Imagine a world in which drivers do not commit traffic violations, and vehicles are not involved in collisions. That would be a welcome change for law enforcement agencies, given the thousands of lives lost every year in traffic collisions. Autonomous vehicles, though, will also raise a number of critical uncertainties. Absent the need to deter and investigate traffic collisions, the role of law enforcement agencies, particularly highway patrols, could be significantly altered. Further, the traffic citation revenue many local law enforcement agencies currently rely upon could be severely diminished as well. The traditional traffic stop, a cornerstone of policing for decades, could be all but eliminated. The police must also consider the myriad of ways in which these autonomous vehicles could be used for illicit purposes by terrorists, hackers, and other criminals. With so many considerations, it is imperative that law enforcement agencies adequately plan and prepare for the changes autonomous vehicle technology will likely bring about.

Technology Development and Safety Benefits

Autonomous vehicles will likely have many positive impacts on society, significantly enhancing both mobility and safety for motorists and consumers. Imagine a vehicle that could take a disabled or elderly person, otherwise incapable of driving, to the grocery store. Imagine also a vehicle that could take children safely to school without the risk of a driver who might be tired, upset, or distracted. Not too long ago, this may have been viewed as an impossibility, yet the technology now exists. Although most experts predict completely autonomous vehicles will not become commonplace on public roadways for at least 20 or 30 years, others predict the technology, accelerated by safety and comfort demands, could be here much sooner—in 15–20 years.1

Although the technology allowing autonomous navigation has existed since the 1970s, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge in 2004 jump-started the autonomous vehicle field when a robotic car successfully navigated a complicated field trial.2 Since that time, Google Inc., which developed one of the first autonomous vehicle prototypes, has deployed a small fleet of autonomous vehicles in California. As of June 2015, Google reports its vehicles have driven 1.8 million miles in the past six years and been involved in only 12 minor accidents, none of which were caused by the autonomous vehicle.3 This is a staggering safety record that illustrates the potential safety benefits of these vehicles. In addition to Google, many major automobile manufacturers, including Audi, Volkswagen, Toyota, and General Motors are now actively pursuing autonomous technologies for their future vehicles.4

Many of the potential benefits being touted by autonomous vehicle manufacturers and developers have spurred a great deal of interest and enthusiasm among the motoring public. As mentioned earlier, one of the most notable potential benefits involves the reduction (or perhaps one day the elimination) of vehicle collisions and associated fatalities. Vehicle collisions continue to be one of the leading causes of death and injury, and most collisions are attributed to human error. A recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), found that just three driver behaviors’ speeding (24 percent), impaired driving (23 percent), and distracted driving (15 percent), accounted for 56 percent of the economic loss to the United States and 62 percent of societal harm from the 32,999 highway fatalities, 3.9 million injuries, and 24 million damaged vehicles involved in collisions in 2010.5 Certainly, the ability to significantly reduce highway deaths and injuries, along with the corresponding economic loss by removing the possibility of human error will be a major benefit of autonomous vehicle technology.

In addition to reducing traffic collisions, autonomous vehicles have the potential to significantly reduce traffic congestion and, by extension, some of the pollution traditionally associated with idling vehicles. A 2012 IEEE study estimates that widespread adoption of autonomous vehicle technology could increase highway capacity fivefold.6 The technology may also have a positive impact on fuel consumption as smart vehicles conserve fuel and maximize efficiency by a strict adherence to posted speed limits.

Public safety benefits and the potential to increase roadway capacity has paved the way for state legislatures to begin to enact laws to govern the use of autonomous vehicles. On January 1, 2013, California Vehicle Code Section 38750 was enacted, defining autonomous vehicles and authorizing the operation of autonomous vehicles on public roads for testing purposes. The law specifically requires the vehicles to have a mechanism allowing the driver to engage and disengage the autonomous technology.7 In compliance with the law, vehicles currently being tested by Google include traditional vehicle controls that allow the occupant to take over for the vehicle when the need (or desire) arises. As a result, a human is ultimately still in control of existing versions of autonomous vehicles currently being tested. However, this could change soon.

Google recently announced plans to build a small fleet of subcompact cars that could operate without a person at the wheel. Unlike current versions, the vehicles would not have any conventional driver controls, such as steering wheels or gas and brake pedals. With top speeds of 25 mph, these vehicles will not be designed for highway use, but they could be a sign of what the future holds for automated vehicle technology.8

Beyond the safety and environmental impacts, there are also financial benefits of autonomous vehicles as well. According to a study released by McKinsey and Company, autonomous vehicle technology will create a wealth of additional free time for an estimated 1.2 billion motorists around the world. McKinsey predicts those (former) drivers will be able to spend more time on the Internet while in their vehicles, which would significantly increase digital media revenue. Specifically, commuters could reclaim an average of 50 minutes a day previously spent driving, which could generate over $100 billion in digital revenue if people spend even a portion of this time on the Internet.9

While most of the autonomous vehicle attention has been focused on passenger cars, recent reports indicate there will be implications for the commercial vehicle industry as well. Daimler Trucks North America recently unveiled its Freightliner Inspiration Truck in Nevada. During the media event, Daimler representative’s highlighted statistics indicating that 90 percent of crashes caused by driver distraction and drowsiness; important issues to the trucking industry can be prevented by autonomous technology.10 As with passenger cars, this would not only increase safety, but would also have positive implications on the commercial vehicle transportation economy as well. At the May 5, 2015, launch event, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval issued the first license for an autonomous commercial truck to Daimler. In its current form, a driver is required to be in the truck and able to take control of the truck, but he or she can also cede control of all safety-critical functions while driving on the roadway.11

Criminal Applications

While there are numerous potential benefits associated with autonomous vehicle technology, there are some unanswered questions. For instance, how might the criminal element utilize the vehicles for illicit purposes, such as transporting drugs, programming the vehicles to drive into public buildings with bombs, or even tampering with the vehicle control systems?

In a report prepared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), it was noted that autonomous vehicles will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car.12 For example, police pursuits could change drastically if the occupant has both hands free to wield a weapon and doesn’t have to watch the road. Further, a terrorist could place a bomb inside of an autonomous vehicle and direct the vehicle into a public location or critical infrastructure, potentially causing mass casualties. There is currently no indication that autonomous vehicle manufacturers are considering the criminal element and taking steps to prevent these types of occurrences. However, it is imperative that law enforcement agencies consider these possibilities and plan not only their response to such incidents, but ways to prevent such illicit uses of the technology in the first place.

Another significant implication to policing will be the rate of cybersecurity-related crimes, specifically the hacking of autonomous vehicle operational systems. Given these vehicles heavy reliance on computer guidance, the potential to hack into or manipulate them certainly exists. Imagine, for instance, a scenario in which a family is held hostage in their own vehicle as a criminal seizes control of the vehicle. Although many questions have yet to be answered, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Law Enforcement Cyber Center is working to evaluate the nexus between highway safety and cybersecurity. The center has already indicated the commitment to work with state and local law enforcement subject matter experts to ensure the vehicles of tomorrow are safe and secure.13

Criminals may also seize on the opportunity to utilize autonomous vehicles (which do not commit traffic violations and, thus, may be immune from police stops) to transport drugs and illegal weapons. The vehicles could conceivably even be used to move illegal drugs from one location to another without anyone inside the vehicle, eliminating the need for any risk of apprehension on the part of criminals and couriers. The frequency with which these events may occur, and law enforcement’s ability to respond, will be critical to the viability of this technology. Although specific response protocols cannot be created until the technology is more fully developed, potential criminal applications must be considered by law enforcement. Beginning that planning process now by examining the possibilities is a necessary first step.

Oversight and Regulation

Although California has passed legislation addressing the testing of autonomous vehicle technology (California Vehicle Code Section 38750), Nevada is the only state that has enacted active regulations regarding actual implementation of autonomous vehicle technology on its roads.14 In accordance with California’s Vehicle Code requirement, in December 2015, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) released draft regulations

necessary to ensure the safe operation of autonomous vehicles on public roads, including, but not limited to, regulations regarding the aggregate number of deployments of autonomous vehicles on public roads, special rules for the registration of autonomous vehicles, [and] new license requirements for operators of autonomous vehicles.15

In discussions with representatives from DMV, it is apparent the development of these regulations has been very challenging given the complexity of the technology, coupled with the government’s lack of technical expertise to keep pace with this complex and rapidly evolving technology.16 At the U.S. national government level, NHTSA released a preliminary statement of policy concerning autonomous vehicles in 2013 to assist states in implementing autonomous vehicle technology safely, while allowing the potential benefits to be fully realized. However, at the time, NHTSA stopped short of developing federal regulations, stating,

the agency believes that regulation of the technical performance of automated vehicles is premature at this time [and] the agency recognizes that premature regulation can run the risk of putting the brakes on the evolution toward increasingly better vehicle safety technologies.17

Despite its hesitation a few years ago, NHTSA has recently taken a more proactive approach to embracing this technology and has announced plans to work with stakeholders to develop guidance on the safe deployment and operation of autonomous vehicles, as well as the testing and analysis methods needed to assess them. In January of 2016, while making this announcement at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx added, “We are on the cusp of a new era in automotive technology with enormous potential to save lives, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and transform mobility for the American people.” 18

NHTSA is responsible for developing and enforcing the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSSs), which would logically also give them oversight over the development of autonomous vehicle technology at the federal level. Recognizing the need for distinguishing the various types of autonomous vehicles, NHTSA has established five levels of vehicle automation, from level 0, which is no automation, to level 4, which is defined as full self-driving automation. However, NHTSA cautions, further research is needed to fully understand the technical and human factors issues implicated by self-driving vehicles, a clear sign of the complexity and rapidly changing nature of this technology.19

Given the current lack of state or federal regulations, it is imperative that law enforcement agencies maintain an active role in the evaluation of autonomous vehicle technology to ensure public safety is paramount in the eventual development of regulations. One area of particular concern is the issue of law enforcement’s access to the autonomous vehicle control systems. During a recent presentation on autonomous vehicle technology at the IACP 39th Annual IACP Law Enforcement Information Management Training Conference and Technology Exposition (LEIM 2015), one of the first questions asked by a member of the audience was whether or not regulations would mandate a “kill switch” to enable law enforcement agencies to shut down the vehicles if needed.20

Law Enforcement’s Response

Ultimately, it is imperative for law enforcement agencies, especially those with a focus on traffic enforcement, to begin to work with the manufacturers and lawmakers to ensure law enforcement’s needs and concerns are considered in the development of these vehicles and the related regulations. For example, perhaps the police could be given the ability to intervene and, if necessary, take control of the vehicles in specified circumstances. If some type of access is authorized, it will be imperative that law enforcement agencies have properly trained employees, familiar enough with the technology, to intervene in a safe and efficient manner. Additionally, agencies must plan for new roles and new methods of enforcement, which will become necessary once these vehicles become prevalent on the roadways.

There are opportunities for collaboration and information sharing. . In addition to the IACP, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) has been actively researching autonomous vehicle technology, having established an Autonomous Vehicle Information Sharing Group in 2013. In 2015, AAMVA also established a working group to develop a Best Practices Guide for autonomous vehicle technology. In California, the DMV has established a statewide autonomous vehicle working group, which includes manufacturers and law enforcement representatives. It is important for law enforcement agencies to identify the various sources of information available and, where possible, actively participate in discussions on autonomous vehicle technology.

In addition to the safety of autonomous vehicles and the oversight necessary for their use, there are three other critical areas for police professionals to consider the impact on traffic stops and the probable cause to stop vehicles, the enforcement of traffic laws and regulations, and the liability concerns that may follow the integration of autonomous vehicles on the roadways.

The Traditional Traffic Stop and Enforcement of Traffic Laws
Current laws are clear regarding a driver, or the person in control, of an automobile. Section 305 of the California Vehicle Code defines a driver as “a person who drives or is in actual physical control of a vehicle.”21 In many cases, this “driver” is accountable for a wide variety of criminal acts associated with a vehicle. This includes auto theft, possession of illegal drugs and weapons (in a vehicle), and impaired driving. Absent a traditional driver, as is the case in a “driverless” car, the enforcement of these laws will become much more complicated.

According to data collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, approximately 26.4 million people were subject to a traffic stop in the United States in 2011.22 Of those stops, the data indicate a vast majority were based on driver behavior and decisions. In total, violations based on driver behavior accounted for 68 percent of traffic stops by police all of which could be potentially eliminated by the introduction of autonomous vehicles.23 Although this would free the police for other duties, it also radically alters the ways they become aware of many more serious crimes.

Conducting traffic stops has been a cornerstone of policing for decades, often leading to the identification of crimes unrelated to the act of driving. However, a traffic stop can occur only when an officer has probable cause to stop a vehicle, which stems from some sort of a violation of traffic laws on the part of the driver. Although specific laws have yet to be written, an autonomous vehicle that does not commit traffic violations may never be subject to a traffic stop by a law enforcement officer. Therefore, law enforcement agencies will have far less opportunities for criminal apprehension arising from traditional traffic stops, which will require a significant change in the way law enforcement agencies approach traffic enforcement.

A significant reduction in traffic stops and related citations will also have a financial impact on law enforcement agencies. While society will undoubtedly see a net gain in the resources saved by reducing fatalities, citation revenue could be significantly impacted. According to one report, about 41 million people receive speeding tickets in the United States every year, paying more than $6.2 billion per year in fines and forfeitures. This translates to an estimated $300,000 in speeding ticket revenue per U.S. police officer every year.24 Absent this revenue, many cities and counties will have to make adjustments to their resource deployment. This, in turn, could also impact staffing levels; even if there are fewer budgetary impacts than anticipated from a drop in citation revenue, there may be pressure to reduce staffing levels as traffic collision rates decline and the apparent need for traditional traffic enforcement efforts decreases.

In addition to the potential elimination of traditional traffic stops, another area of interest for law enforcement will be the technology’s impact on other traffic regulations such as impaired driving. On one hand, an autonomous car can reduce many of the fatalities caused by impaired drivers. However, “drivers” of autonomous vehicles may also be willing to consume more alcohol and drugs, believing their vehicles will get them home safely. If this occurs, there could even be an increase in general crimes relating to the consumption of drugs and alcohol (e.g., public intoxication).

Extensive work has yet to be done relating to the regulatory schemes and structures that will necessarily evolve to address autonomous vehicle technology. Since enforcement is, by its very nature, designed to counter the human tendency to test or disregard rules of conduct, traffic enforcement assumedly will become less important as automation increases. The role of law enforcement agencies, however, is not limited to traditional enforcement. They also have a role as regulators and determiners of liability. Interestingly, the very characteristic that could make traffic enforcement less significant (removal of a human driver) simultaneously complicates the issue of liability.

If an autonomous vehicle malfunctions, or does become involved in a serious traffic collision while operating autonomously, current laws are unclear as to who will be liable for the resulting injuries or damages. Undoubtedly, in many cases, police officers will be tasked with assigning this liability, in the same manner they do now in traffic collisions. In its current testing on California roadways, Google has even said that tickets should be given to them, rather than the occupant.25 Notwithstanding, questions remain as to whether or not the operator may have been negligent in ensuring the vehicle received required maintenance and software updates. In any case, the assignment of liability is yet another of the many law enforcement implications associated with this technology. No doubt, vehicle manufacturers, insurance companies, the legislature, and the courts will all have a say in the laws and regulations created to allow police to manage the presence of autonomous vehicles on the roadways.

Implications and Recommendations

To remain relevant in an ever-changing world, law enforcement agencies must carefully evaluate current trends and utilize effective forecasting to identify potential future issues. One such issue is certainly the advent of autonomous vehicle technology. Despite the fact they may not be legally allowed on U.S. roadways for several years, the U.S. law enforcement community should begin thinking about the potential implications of this technology now.

There are a variety of challenges associated with autonomous vehicle technology the police should start to consider during their strategic planning processes. Given the vast implications of autonomous vehicle technology, this may require the allocation of additional personnel into the planning function of the organization. Additionally, the law enforcement community must work diligently to collaborate with stakeholders and industry experts to develop a better understanding of the implications of autonomous technologies. This understanding will allow for the development of appropriate response protocols; it may also assist in the identification of appropriate staffing and training needs.

Given the complexity of this rapidly developing technology, something for which most law enforcement agencies do not have any degree of expertise, careful consideration must also be given to the type of people being hired by law enforcement agencies. Specifically, the recruitment and hiring of more technologically savvy personnel may be more appropriate in planning functions to ensure an adequate level of expertise moving forward. This recruitment need applies to not only autonomous vehicle technology, but to other evolving technologies in the law enforcement field as well.

With the increasing sophistication of criminals, there will undoubtedly be increasing needs for specialized law enforcement investigative abilities to appropriately thwart hackers and mitigate incidents involving autonomous vehicles. Therefore, during the strategic planning process, agencies must evaluate the capabilities of their personnel in conjunction with the implications of the technology. With rapidly emerging autonomous vehicle technology, advanced education in vehicle engineering and electronics may become an essential skill for law enforcement agencies, especially if they will one day regulate these vehicles and ensure their safe operation. Accordingly, law enforcement agencies should explore educational opportunities for their employees and perhaps even partnerships with educational institutions to provide training in these advanced areas. Further, agencies should evaluate all available research and, when possible, work to partner with manufacturers and other stakeholders to consider the myriad of issues the technology may bring and identify appropriate responses.


As discussed, there will be an array of issues associated with the advent of autonomous vehicle technology, which will have a variety of impacts, especially to the law enforcement community. As with many new technologies, although designed to positively impact quality of life, there will likely be some people looking to utilize the technology for criminal gain or illicit purposes. Although the exact path has yet to be set, the law enforcement community must carefully plan for the development and implementation of autonomous vehicles in order to remain relevant and be properly prepared for the litany of potential outcomes associated with this technology.

Some may argue the introduction of autonomous vehicle technology might one day make traffic enforcement an obsolete practice for law enforcement. While true, it could simultaneously create the need for a more specialized law enforcement community, with the appropriate specialized units and areas of expertise to remain relevant and effective in policing a more technically advanced motoring public. This ability to anticipate and respond appropriately will be the key for traffic law enforcement agencies to remain relevant and prepared for the introduction of autonomous vehicles on the highway system. If this occurs, then in all likelihood the development of autonomous vehicle technology will be of great benefit to law enforcement and society as a whole, just like the KITT car in Knight Rider.

Kevin Davis is a captain with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) and has been with the CHP for over 17 years. He currently serves as the commander of the CHP’s Research and Planning Section, where he is responsible for the evaluation of new and emerging technologies to improve the operational efficiency of the department. Captain Davis recently completed is currently enrolled in the Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) Command College, where he researched the development of autonomous vehicles and their potential impact on the law enforcement community.

This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

This article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it–creating, constraining, and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

The views and conclusions expressed in the Command College Futures Project and article are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the CA Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).

Copyright 2015
California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training

1 Phil LeBeau, “Autonomous-Drive Car Reality Further Out Than Most Expect,” Behind the Wheel, CNBC, March 5, 2015 (accessed June 12, 2015); Neil Winton, “Autonomous Cars Like The Google May Be Viable In Less Than 10 years,” Forbes Magazine, June 6, 2014 (accessed June 12, 2015).
2 Adam Fisher, “Inside Google?s Quest to Popularize Self-Driving Cars,” Popular Science, September 18, 2013 (accessed July 21, 2014).
3 Brooke Crothers, “Google Now Reporting Self-Driving Car Accidents: Hey, It’s Not the Car’s Fault,” Forbes Magazine, June 8, 2015 (accessed June 30, 2015).
4 “30 Corporations Working On Autonomous Vehicles,” CB Insights, blog, updated April 18, 2016 (accessed June 8, 2016).
5 Dan McLaughlin, “17 Ways Driverless Cars Could Change America,” The Federalist, July 16, 2014, accessed June 12, 2015).
6 Fisher, “Inside Google’s Quest to Popularize Self-Driving Cars.”
7 California Vehicle Code Section 38750 (2013).
8 Justin Pritchard, “No Steering Wheel, No Gas Pedal;Google Plans Driverless Car,” The Sacramento Bee, May 29, 2014.
9 Paul Lilly, Autonomous Cars Could Lead to Billions in “Digital” Revenue by 2025Hot Hardware, March 5, 2015 (accessed June 12, 2015).
10 Doug Newcomb, “Daimler Autonomous Truck Has Huge Commercial Implications,” Forbes Magazine, May 8, 2015 (accessed June 12, 2015).
11 Rosalie L. Donlon, “Taking a Gamble, Nevada Licenses First Autonomous Commercial Truck in the U.S.” Property Casualty 360, May 7, 2015 (accessed July 6, 2015).
12 Charlie Osborne, “FBI Brands Autonomous Cars Potential ‘Lethal Weapons,'” ZDNet, Between the Lines, July 16, 2014 (accessed June 12, 2015).
13 Ben Gorban and Michael Wagers, “Car Hacking: The Risks and Implications for Law Enforcement,” Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 81, no. 2 (February 2014): 60–61 (accessed June 9, 2016).
14 Andrew Swanson, }Somebody Grab the Wheel! State Autonomous Vehicle Legislation and the Road to the National Regime,” Marquette Law Review 97, no. 4 (2014): 1085?1147 (accessed October 20, 2014).
15 California Vehicle Code Section 38750 (2013).
16 California Department of Motor Vehicles, “Autonomous Vehicles,” (public workshop) Sacramento, California, January 27, 2015 (accessed June 9, 2016).
17 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles” (accessed June 9, 2015).
18 NHTSA, “Secretary Foxx Unveils President Obama’s FY 17 Budget Proposal of Nearly $4 Billion for Automated Vehicles and Announces DOT Initiatives to Accelerate Vehicle Safety Innovations,” press release, January 14, 2016 (accessed June 22, 2016).
19 Bernard Soriano et al., “Autonomous Vehicle Technology: Current Status, Future Plans, and Law Enforcement Applications” (presentation, 39th Annual IACP Law Enforcement Information Management Training Conference and Technology Exposition, San Diego, CA, May 18, 2015).
20 Ibid.
21 California Vehicle Code Section 305.
22 T.C. Sottek, “Google’s Car Could Be the Best Thing Ever for Privacy on the Road,” The Verge, May 30, 2014 (accessed June 12, 2015).
23 Statistic Brain Research Institute, “Driving Citation Statistics,” July 8, 2014 (accessed July 2, 2015).
24 Ibid.
25 Alexis Madrigal, “If a Self-Driving Car Gets in an Accident, Who—or What—Is Liable?” The Atlantic, August 13, 2014, (accessed June 12, 2015).

Please cite as

Kevin Davis, “Preparing for a Future with Autonomous Vehicles,” The Police Chief 83 (July 2016): web only.