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How Would Police Pull Over an Autonomous Vehicle?

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Nov. 11, 2020—Riding in autonomous vehicles is daunting for a variety of reasons. Namely, the lack of a human driver. But what happens when you’re riding in an autonomous vehicle and a robbery takes place? Say the robber launches in front of the car, knowing it will stop, and then robs its passengers? 

This question, and many like it, were answered during the most recent webinar from Partners for Automated Vehicle Education. Mark Kopko, director of the office of transformational technology at Pennsylvania’s Department of Transportation and Saul Jaeger, commander of the field operation division for the Mountain View Police discussed autonomous vehicles as both a resource and a hurdle for first responders. 

Mountain View is home to Jaeger’s police force as well as Google’s headquarters, and because of that, Jaeger said he started conversations with Google about autonomous vehicles more than 10 years ago. 

“Anytime there is new technology, especially autonomous technology without people, there is a fear,” Jaeger said. “We were concerned about how these things are going to work.” 

Throughout the conversation, Kopko emphasized how important open dialogue is between engineers and first responders. Kopko said there are a variety of seemingly routine  tasks that need to be approached differently when an autonomous vehicle is involved. 

From identifying an autonomous vehicle, to securing one once it’s been pulled over, everything needs to be considered, he said. 

When you’re pulled over by an officer, the first thing you do is grab your license and registration, but when there isn’t a driver to hand them over that becomes more complicated. 

“Then, there are towing considerations,” Kopko said. “We had to talk to towers about how to hook up the autonomous vehicles without damaging the sensors.” 

Jaeger said as a member of law enforcement, his concerns are a bit different. 

“There are crimes that can happen in the vehicle as well as outside the vehicle,” he said. “It can be used as an accessory, and it can be the crime.” 

The most daunting threat mentioned in the presentation was the possibility of someone, or something, taking control of the vehicles and using them as a weapon. 

“We don’t have handcuffs big enough to put on an autonomous vehicle,” said Jaeger. 

But for all of the potential dangers, there are also a plethora of benefits autonomous vehicles would bring to first responders. 

Kopko says with the number of sensors attached to each vehicle, they offer an opportunity for law enforcement they don’t currently have—data, and lots of it.

Jaeger says if an autonomous vehicle were stopped at a red light and a collision occurred in front of it, law enforcement could access the data retained by the autonomous vehicle to discover who ran the red light. An example of what he refers to as “electronic evidence.” 

“There have even been some cases solved in regards to drive-by shootings when an AV was in the area and able to collect information that furthered the case,” Jaeger said. 

Apart from the crime aspect, Jaeger said the vehicles’ ability to monitor roadway conditions has been extremely helpful. 

“In meetings, people would say ‘Hey our car was confused at this intersection,’” Jaeger said. Then, nine times out of 10 he said the lane markings were incorrect, meaning the city would be liable. 

“The [AVs] pointed out things that will get seen eventually, but are now seen every day by these vehicles,” he said. 

When asked about the advice he would give to others who are preparing for AVs in their town, Kopko said, “Get all the right stakeholders at the table so you can hear the concerns of all the parties. Something will come up and you need to have a group to consult.” 

Jaeger echoed his advice by saying, “When you’re done communicating, you need to communicate some more.”

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