Po­lice chases

PO­LICE CRUIS­ERS AND GET­AWAY CARS ARE RAC­ING TO­WARD AN UN­KNOWN FU­TURE.

Popular Science - - CONTENTS - BY ELEANOR CUM­MINS PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION BY ERIC HEINTZ

The brand-new Ford DeLuxe For­dor that Bon­nie Parker and Clyde Barrow plucked from a Topeka, Kansas, drive­way in 1934 was top-shelf: Cor­doba gray paint, a big chrome grill, and a sump­tu­ous leather in­te­rior. But what re­ally at­tracted the carsavvy bank rob­bers lay be­neath the hood—its 85-horse­power flat­head V-8 en­gine. This new breed of ma­chine was de­signed to give ev­ery Amer­i­can, op­por­tunis­tic crooks in­cluded, a taste of speed. Ev­ery Amer­i­can ex­cept the cops. De­pres­sion-era po­lice de­part­ments suf­fered from tight bud­gets and out­dated tech; many of­fi­cers still bumped around in old Model A’s, which had half the For­dor’s mus­cle. Criminals like Parker and Barrow could, of course, steal any ride they wanted, and they chose wisely. It took a Texas Ranger with his own V-8, and a small-town cop who went through cars, trucks, and even a limou­sine, be­fore the law fi­nally caught up with—and killed—the out­law cou­ple.

1994 LA’s High­way 405 is like a drag strip for chases, even the slow-mo kind, like the in­fa­mous 90-minute pur­suit of O.J. Simp­son in this white Ford Bronco. 2001 Fol­low­ing a shoot-out with the LAPD, a gun­man hi­jacked this bus, trig­ger­ing a chase that killed one and in­jured seven be­fore the cops ap­pre­hended him. 1921 Law en­force­ment strug­gles to stay cur­rent. Here, state troop­ers put the horse af­ter the horse­power in pur­suit of Pro­hi­bi­tion­flout­ing driv­ers. 1977 High-speed chases rarely end well. This perp got his car caught in a chain-link fence along an In­ter­state 25 em­bank­ment in Colorado.

That’s an old story, but 84 years af­ter Parker’s and Barrow’s deaths, car chases re­main com­mon: In 2012 alone, po­lice in the United States racked up 68,000 pur­suits, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est data from the Bureau of Jus­tice Statis­tics. Half of these chases started with a sim­ple traf­fic stop—a bro­ken tail­light, fail­ure to sig­nal. But then, for var­i­ous rea­sons, these driv­ers had rea­sons to rab­bit, from out­stand­ing war­rants to smol­der­ing joints to il­le­gal weapons. What­ever the trig­ger, most po­lice pur­suits to­day are pretty short. Two-thirds end in fewer than 3 miles, but even a quick chase can turn deadly. USA To­day noted that 11,506 peo­ple died be­tween 1979 and 2013 as the re­sult of car chases. Many of them were by­standers.

It’s be­cause of these grim statis­tics that po­lice brass now ac­tively dis­cour­age high-speed pur­suits. “We do traf­fic en­force­ment to make peo­ple safe,” says Lt. David Ferry of the Los An­ge­les Po­lice Depart­ment. “If I’m go­ing to chase some­one be­cause they ran a light, I’m go­ing to cre­ate a more dan­ger­ous sce­nario than if I don’t take ac­tion.” So Ferry and his col­leagues are more de­lib­er­ate. LAPD he­li­copters ra­dio the di­rec­tion of sus­pect cars to po­lice cruis­ers be­low, al­low­ing cops to make safer pur­suit de­ci­sions. “We won’t be right up on you, but we’ll still get you,” Ferry says. Of­ten­times, they’ll just call in a scofflaw’s plate and check for vi­o­la­tions. If there are none, they’ll sim­ply mail a sum­mons. De­spite their best ef­forts, the LAPD gave chase 749 times in 2017, up from 394 in 2014.

The state of our streets might seem bleak, but the coming age of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles should shift us into a safer gear. Law-abid­ing con­veyances will elim­i­nate driv­ers, and with them, many traf­fic vi­o­la­tions—both ac­ci­den­tal and cal­cu­lated—re­duc­ing the need for pa­trol cars al­to­gether. As self­driv­ing ve­hi­cles re­place our fal­li­ble senses with pre­ci­sion radars, and ex­change our im­pul­sive brains for care­ful com­put­ers, four-wheeled mis­chief will come to a com­plete stop.

Right? M aybe, but the very trust­wor­thi­ness of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles will ac­tu­ally give bad guys an en­tirely new crim­i­nal tool­kit, ac­cord­ing to Todd Humphreys, an en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Austin with a knack for crack­ing ev­ery­thing from cell­phones to cars. “Some crime will be in­cred­i­bly so­phis­ti­cated, and some will be in­cred­i­bly un­so­phis­ti­cated,” he says.

The most art­less could be the dead­li­est. Thomas Cow­per, a re­tired state trooper and for­mer mem­ber of an FBIspon­sored group gam­ing out im­pend­ing se­cu­rity threats, says AVs could make acts of ter­ror scar­ily easy. Stash an ex­plo­sive in a ve­hi­cle, set its des­ti­na­tion for a busy tourist spot, and boom: fiery hellscape, no hack­ing re­quired. Po­lice could es­tab­lish bomb-sniff­ing-dog check­points in places like Times Square or at the Hol­ly­wood Walk of Fame, or they could run ev­ery car through su­per­size air­port body scan­ners, but that un­der­tak­ing would be enor­mous.

The same op­por­tu­nity for ex­ploita­tion holds true for drug car­tels, Cow­per says. Rou­tine traf­fic stops cur­rently give cops am­ple chances to bust smug­glers. But in a driver­less world, where our cars don’t panic and lay on the gas, those stops— and the re­sult­ing chances to seize il­licit ship­ments—will evap­o­rate. (And with it, many hope, racial bias in polic­ing.) “Car­tels are lim­ited by peo­ple and re­sources,” Cow­per says, re­fer­ring to the drug-run­ning num­bers game. With count­less, anony­mous robo-mules, car­tels could, he says, “over­whelm our abil­ity to in­ter­dict.”

Things get even trick­ier when wouldbe criminals get their hands on a car’s schemat­ics. Missy Cum­mings, a for­mer U.S. Navy fighter pi­lot and a pro­fes­sor in Duke Uni­ver­sity’s Pratt School of En­gi­neer­ing, says turn­ing an au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle into an agent of chaos will re­quire only a ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of how it works. Li­dar, for ex­am­ple, is the laser-based de­tec­tion sys­tem that sits atop most self-driv­ing test cars to­day. You don’t have to know what it is to dis­rupt it, only where it is. Some­thing as mun­dane as dust on its lens could blur the li­dar’s per­cep­tion of traf­fic, Cum­mings says.

Of course, po­lice will also have new tools at their dis­posal. They could, ac­cord­ing to Cum­mings, stop a sketchy self­driver by shoot­ing a burst of silly string at its li­dar mod­ule. “You wouldn’t even have to use bul­lets.” L idar is hardly the only vul­ner­a­bil­ity. The typ­i­cal driver­less tool­kit con­sists of three other sus­cep­ti­ble sen­sors: cam­eras at the front and back, GPS con­nected to po­si­tion­ing satel­lites, and a radar that bounces ra­dio waves off nearby ob­jects to let the car know its place in space. Ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence an­a­lyzes the data from all four sen­sors and uses it to in­form fu­ture de­ci­sions. A soft­ware­savvy ne’er-do-well could do sig­nif­i­cant dam­age to any part of this self-driv­ing suite, putting the ve­hi­cle’s oc­cu­pants—and ev­ery­one else on the road—at risk.

A de­ter­mined crim­i­nal, Humphreys says, could jail­break the car’s cen­tral brain by al­ter­ing the soft­ware and al­low­ing the hacker to speed, or di­rect the car man­u­ally. A cul­prit will be able to ma­nip­u­late other ve­hi­cles too. AVs will likely have ve­hi­cle-to-ve­hi­cle com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems and sen­sors that let them cruise, merge into traf­fic, and exit high­ways in sync with other cars on the road. By send­ing false mes­sages,

1923 Mo­tor­cy­cle cops still grace our streets. The ve­hi­cle’s slim pro­file makes it great for in­town chases but risky at high speeds.

1923

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