Hell on wheels: Self-driving cars could be used for criminal mayhem (but also surveillance), says FBI report
With the technology space dominated by endless incremental iterations on consumer toys, often designed to do little more than convince users to buy more stuff, self-driving cars are among the few truly revolutionary ideas on the table. They could prevent crashes caused by human error or irresponsibility, reduce our carbon footprint by reaching more optimal fuel efficiency levels, and increase the productivity of individual vehicles, which by one estimate spend 90 percent of their time parked.
But, in a report obtained by the Guardian, the FBI throws a bit of cold water on the self-driving zeitgeist. The study, which reads like the script to a "Lethal Weapon" movie, warns that autonomous vehicles could be used to assist with all manner of criminal mayhem.
“Bad actors will be able to conduct tasks that require use of both hands or taking one’s eyes off the road which would be impossible today,” the report states, envisioning high speed chases where an adversary is free to shoot at law enforcement while the car takes care of the driving. It's the logical conclusion to that action film cliche where a driver commands a passenger to "hold the wheel" while the hero or villain fires endless rounds at enemies -- without bothering to reload, of course.
"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," the agency adds.
It may sound like the stuff of Hollywood action movies, but fatalities related to high-speed automobile pursuits are not as uncommon as you might think. In 2008, 334 people were killed in police chases, 94 of whom were bystanders. Efforts to cut down on the number of high-speed pursuits -- by allowing police to initiate a chase only when there's probable cause that a violent felony has taken place -- has in some cases demoralized officers, Milwaukee police detective Michael Crivello tells USA Today.
The FBI study was not limited to assessing the danger these vehicles pose in Steve McQueen-style getaways. The report also commends self-driving cars: “The risk that distraction or poor judgement leading to collision that stems from manual operation would be substantially reduced." And, perhaps calling into question Google's motives behind building autonomous vehicles, the agency states, “Surveillance will be made more effective and easier, with less of a chance that a patrol car will lose sight of a target vehicle.” (Google vehicles have already been used for surveillance of a sort, with the company using its Street View cars to gather emails, passwords, and other personal information from unprotected WiFi networks, of course.)
Safety and consumer value aside, it seems with each new groundbreaking technological development, Surveillance Valley always wins.