Rules of the Road, Car Commandeering in the Age of Autonomous Vehicles

By Anne Stickells

Semi-autonomous vehicles have started to enter the market, and fully autonomous vehicles will likely follow. Elon Musk predicts that Tesla will be producing fully autonomous cars within roughly two years (he acknowledges the regulation and safety approval process might take an additional one to two years). Similarly, Toyota plans to launch its first self-driving vehicle by 2020, and Google plans to start commercializing its self-driving car the same year. A self-driving car is now seen as all-but certain eventuality, not part of a science fiction story.

As autonomous vehicles begin to hit the roads, a discussion of legal issues have already begun to take shape. For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently agreed to consider Google’s self-driving computer system as a driver, a title that was previously restricted to humans. Another issue that has arisen and is unresolved is law enforcement officials’ access to monitor a vehicle’s GPS device.  Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor noted in United States v. Jones that it is unclear how search and seizure laws should be applied to technologies that are built into a vehicle.

One area that has not received as much attention to date is law enforcement’s ability to take over a self-driving car. For example, a 2015 RAND report led by John Hollywood imagines a scenario where a police officer directing traffic at a crosswalk is able to force a car into autonomous mode in order to prevent an accident caused by a distracted driver.  Similarly, an officer could force a car with autonomous capabilities to pull over if it was behaving erratically because a drunk driver was overriding its abilities.  An officer could also have cars exit the far left lane so that a police vehicle could more quickly and safely reach its destination, or reduce an autonomous car’s speed if they felt that road conditions required slower driving.

While these potential capabilities are impressive, they are also intrusive. Legislation has not yet clarified how these types of cases will be handled, but it is important to consider them while the capabilities of autonomous vehicles are still being developed. In order to effectively introduce these capabilities the RAND report suggests that the law enforcement community needs to work with the NHTSA and other key stake holders to “develop law enforcement requirements… [and] ensure [these requirements]…are included both in regulation and in technical design specifications.”[1]

[1] Hollywood, John S., Dulani Woods, Richard Silberglitt, Brian A. Jackson, Using Future Internet Technologies to Strengthen Criminal Justice, Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, RR-928-NIJ, 2015.  As of April 21, 2016:

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