POLICE CRUISERS AND GETAWAY CARS ARE RACING TOWARD AN UNKNOWN FUTURE.
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 Depression-era police departments suffered from tight budgets and outdated tech; many officers still bumped around in old Model A’s, which had half the Fordor’s muscle.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.