For being global leaders in innovation, Americans are certainly leery of technological advancement for cars. According to a study published by AAA, 73 percent of us are afraid to ride in an unmanned vehicle.
Local regulators aren’t immune, either. After a self-driving car tragically killed a pedestrian, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey commanded Uber to suspend testing driverless cars on the roads.
Of course, driverless cars still need work to make them safer. But while we’re analyzing their drawbacks, we would do well to recognize their manifold benefits—because a future with autonomous cars means a future in which drivers might finally be freed from police oppression on the roads.
The Problem with Policing
It’s not something we think about often, but just by pulling a car onto the highway, drivers forfeit their Fourth Amendment rights. The constant threat of policing dirties the citizen’s driving experience. As former Stanford Law professor Michelle Alexander documents in her book The New Jim Crow, police routinely pull drivers over for minor traffic violations. In 2015, 21.8 million Americans were pulled over during a traffic stop, according to Bureau of Justice statistics.
Too often, police use these types of small infractions as a pretext to search cars. In theory, citizens can refuse to consent to a search, but in practice, police use a variety of techniques to elicit “consent.” They often rely on the unfortunate truth that people don’t realize they have the right to refuse a search—or are uncomfortable refusing an officer. As Alexander notes, “Consent searches are valuable for police because hardly anyone dares to say no.” Police can also bring drug-sniffing dogs to the car, even though these dogs usually just confirm whatever their handlers suspect.
The sheer number of traffic laws in many localities give police the broad latitude to pull over anyone they want.
The sheer number of traffic laws in many localities give police the broad latitude to pull over anyone they want. As D. Arthur Kelsey, a former judge on Virginia’s Court of Criminal Appeals put it: “So dense is the modern web of motor vehicle regulations that every motorist is likely to get caught in it every time he drives to the grocery store.”
Police pretextual searches have a clear racial impact, too. Frank R. Baumgartner, Derek A. Epp, and Kelsey Shoub reviewed 20 million traffic stops for their book Suspect Citizens and found that “just by getting in a car, a black driver has about twice the odds of being pulled over [compared to a white driver] and about four times the odds of being searched.” This seems odd since white drivers are more likely to be found with contraband.
But driverless cars could help with this issue as they’re programmed to obey every traffic law to the letter. In fact, they’ll almost never commit infractions—providing for minorities a respite from the onslaught of police inspections. If we want to build a more racially just society, embracing the idea of self-driving cars could be a small but important start.
A Few Roadblocks in the Way
There are two big legislative roadblocks still standing in the way of self-driving cars. Some states, responding to high-profile accidents involving autonomous vehicles, have banned them completely. That’s the route that Arizona governor Doug Ducey took.
Autonomous vehicles can’t drink and drive, text on the road, or chug Pepsi with one hand while swerving across three lanes to make their exit
Of course, there’s certainly more work to be done in improving autonomous vehicular safety. But we should remember that 40,100 people died in car accidents in 2017, and 94 percent of car accidents are caused by human error. Self-driving cars make headlines when they malfunction, but autonomous vehicles can’t drink and drive, text on the road, or chug Pepsi with one hand while swerving across three lanes to make their exit. The technology ultimately promises to cut down substantially on car accidents; one study found that driverless cars could reduce traffic deaths by 90 percent. Legislators should remember this when they’re deciding whether to allow autonomous vehicles in their states.
The second legislative roadblock is a patchwork of state regulations that make it difficult for car companies to scale. For instance, in October, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed Executive Order 2018-13, allowing for self-driving cars so long as there’s a licensed driver behind the wheel. By contrast, Ohio Governor John Kasich’s executive order says that vehicles need a designated operator, though that person can be outside the vehicle. California, which recently allowed Waymo to test fully autonomous vehicles, also requires that vehicles have a “remote operator” on hand.
These are the types of conflicting state regulations that create uncertainty for companies looking to deploy autonomous vehicles—especially when states like Arizona rescind permissions they previously granted.
Let the Market Function as It Will
Of course, a federal law mandating all 50 states allow self-driving cars would trample on states’ sovereignty. But the market may take care of this problem. Hypothetically, if Colorado adopts self-driving cars while Arizona bans them, then Coloradans will stop driving into Arizona. The slowing tourism revenue would likely push Arizona to accept autonomous vehicles.
Ultimately, it’s up to lawmakers in each individual state to make the decision to embrace self-driving cars. Police pretextual stops infringe on our Fourth Amendment rights and render even more unfair challenges to minorities than those they’re already condemned to deal with. It’s time to move past fears of the future and embrace the kind of tech that will help our society become a little better.