Disrupting the drive-by? Why the FBI’s warning about driverless cars and shootings is silly

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Every bank robber or mob enforcer has faced the following dilemma: You want as many hands holding guns as possible to pull off your heist or gangland-style execution, but you always need to designate one lead-footed thug to drive the getaway car.

Fear not, criminals: technology will shortly have an answer to your woes. According to the FBI, driverless cars being developed by the likes of Google, Ford, Mercedes-Benz and Audi will soon alleviate the need for someone to keep their hands on the steering wheel and eyes on the road. Instead, that passenger can focus on shooting at pursuing police cruisers or gunning down government informants.

Google's new self-driving car prototype can't exceed 25 mph. (Source: Google)

Google’s new self-driving car prototype can’t exceed 25 mph. (Source: Google)

Sure, I’m joking, but apparently the FBI is not. The Guardian obtained an FBI report though an open records request that details how the autonomous car could be put to work in criminal capers. From the Guardian’s report:

In an unclassified but restricted report obtained by the Guardian under a public records request, the FBI predicts that autonomous cars “will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car.”

In a section called Multitasking, the report notes that “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.”

To be fair, the FBI also points out many ways that driverless cars could benefit law enforcement and emergency services, from preventing accidents during high-speed chases to automating surveillance. “… algorithms can control the distance that the patrol car is behind the target to avoid detection or intentionally have a patrol car make opposite turns at intersections, yet successfully meet up at later points with the target,” the report stated.

As far as the potential for criminal mischief goes, I think the FBI’s concerns are a bit overblown. While we tend to think of driverless cars in terms of convenience, the auto industry and smart transportation policy makers are designing them with safety and efficiency in mind.

Vehicle networking technologies developed by Cohda Wireless would let cars "see" around corners. (Source: Cohda)

Vehicle networking technologies developed by Cohda Wireless would let cars “see” around corners. (Source: Cohda)

Self-driving cars will be programmed to obey traffic laws and slow down for obstacles. Google’s new prototype self-driving vehicles won’t exceed 25 miles per hour. Autonomous driving is a bit of misnomer because the cars involved will engage in a kind of group-think in order to coordinate their driving on the road. That’s hardly conducive to perilous high-speed flight from law enforcement. If you want to run that stop sign, you’re going to have take over the wheel yourself.

Sure, a driverless car can be hacked, but transforming a docile automated family sedan into a self-aware danger-seeking getaway car isn’t as simple as hot-wiring the ignition. The artificial intelligence that governs the way a car behaves on the road would have to be completely reprogrammed.

Maybe someday some big criminal syndicate with the resources of a Google X will develop a Steve McQueen or Jason Statham persona that they can inject into a stolen vehicle’s on-board diagnostic port (Think, an Automatic for evil-doing). But until then, the world’s getaway drivers will continue to see gainful employment.

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