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So What Happens When an Autonomous Car Gets Pulled Over?

By: Bridget Clerkin December 28, 2018
Waymo, Google’s self-driving spinoff company, recently made available emergency response guides in the event their autonomous car is pulled over by police.
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It’s a vision we’ve all come to dread: the swirling reds and blues in the rearview, churning up the panic in our guts as we ask ourselves, “What did I do?”

Or, quite possibly, “How did they catch me?”

But what happens when there’s no one behind the wheel to feel the instant regret and frustration of being pulled over?

The question sounds surreal, but it’s a real concern for many in the self-driving world—not to mention those in the world of law enforcement.

We already know that autonomous cars will change everything about transportation as we know it. But even as tech companies and automakers are pushing hard for this new era, they’re scrambling to write the rules on how it will—or should—operate.

Enter Waymo.

The Google self-driving spinoff company recently released an emergency response guide for its fleet of driverless Chrysler Pacificas. The pamphlet outlines what happens if someone gets pulled over by police, at least from the car’s perspective.

For now, the protocol extends to Waymo’s Phoenix, Arizona-based fleet, which has been shepherding passengers around the area for the past year. But with federal guidance on the issue looking like a slim possibility—and Waymo, along with a few others, on the verge of expanding its fleet nationwide—the rules may become the de facto way the cars of the future handle any future traffic stops.

What Will the Cars Do?

According to the tech firm, the autonomous cars will recognize a police or emergency vehicle much in the same way as their human driver counterparts.

The suite of sensors attached to the autos will be able to detect the appearance of and the sirens and emergency lights used by police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks, among others. If one of their self-driving Pacificas detects those lights flashing behind it, the vehicle will immediately begin scanning for a safe space to pull over and stop.

Once safely on the side of the road, the self-driving car will unlock its doors and roll down its windows so a safety driver can speak with the police officer.

Once safely on the side of the road, the self-driving car will unlock its doors and roll down its windows so a safety driver can speak with the police officer.

If there’s no safety driver in the car, the officer can still communicate with someone from Waymo’s “rider support” team via speakers, displays, and other in-vehicle telecommunication devices. The guide also includes diagrams on where information on ownership and registration can be found.

And, if the situation calls for it, the autonomous car can even summon a member of the corporate team to report to the scene.

According to the pamphlet, the vehicles “understand” when they’ve been involved in an accident, and can immediately send a message to headquarters. Once it detects that its airbags have gone off, the self-driving car will also automatically disengage from autonomous mode, brake until it reaches a full stop, then call for help.

Yet while all of these maneuvers may make the job slightly easier for a traffic cop, there are some in the law enforcement world who wonder whether officers should actually be given more responsibilities when dealing with autonomous cars.

But What About the Cops?

police lights

Several months ago, a debate was raging over how much power officers should have over self-driving rides—and whether expressing it would be an invasion of privacy.

A cadre of top officials representing the worlds of law enforcement, government, technology, and automotive, among others, came together this summer to discuss some of the toughest questions still facing the nascent technology—including whether police should be able to remotely halt the self-driving vehicles.

According to a report byReuters, the concept was floated by several law enforcement officials at the meeting, who said it would be deployed in emergency situations. But concerns were raised by others who noted that the same remote controls could be exploited by hackers or terrorists looking to stall the cars.

And even Waymo’s concept of automatically alerting headquarters about an accident came under question, with some in the meeting wondering whether that would amount to an invasion of privacy on behalf of the vehicle’s riders.

Indeed, it seemed there was only one thing the group could only firmly agree on at the meeting: the self-driving revolution is coming, whether we’re ready or not.

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