An FBI report uncovered by British newspaper The Guardian reveals law enforcement fears that autonomous cars like the current Google project could one day be used as “lethal weapons”.
It predicts that cars which drive themselves without any human input are ‘game-changers’ – with the potential to revolutionise high-speed chases and impact on what both police and crooks can do with a car.
The report was written by agents within the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence and says “Autonomy … will make mobility more efficient, but will also open up greater possibilities for dual-use applications and ways for a car to be more of a potential lethal weapon that it is today.”
It cites a future scenario where a vehicle is programmed as a getaway car while its passenger is able to deal with chasing police rather than concentrating on the road. Perhaps something like Bonnie and Clyde both shooting at pursuers through the back window while a computer casino drives the car.
It reflects fears that criminals might override safety features to ignore traffic lights and speed limits, or that terrorists might programme explosive-packed cars to become self-driving bombs.
But the same report also looks at some of the benefits of autonomous cars for law enforcement agencies. It says: “Surveillance will be made more effective and easier, with less of a chance that a patrol car will lose sight of a target vehicle.” Autonomous cars could also be set to stay a certain distance behind targets to avoid detection.
Self-driving cars use radar, video cameras and GPS technology to build up a digital 3D map of their surroundings, including buildings, roads, pedestrians and other vehicles. The cars can then be programmed to navigate to a destination while avoiding obstacles.
There is a difference between autonomous and driver-less cars. Google first began work on such cars with a converted Toyota Prius (top), but its says its autonomous car is designed to operate safely without requiring human intervention. “Our software and sensors do all the work. The vehicles will be very basic but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button.” The car has a top speed of 40km/h.
Driver-less cars, like the ones Volvo is developing in Sweden, have a safety valve in the form of a human co-driver, in case, it says, something untoward happens. The FBI believes that autonomous cars could be approved by Congress for use by the American public within the next five to seven years.