What a traffic stop could look like in 2030
All police officers know that no traffic stop is routine, but the procedure could evolve with new technological advancements
From crafting policy to tactical considerations, PoliceOne's 2017 Guide to Emerging Technologies features expert analysis on soundwave technology, facial recognition software, handheld narcotics analyzers, the future of traffic stops, how constitutional law impacts the collection of data for investigations, and how advancements in biometric technologies will help improve correctional facilities.
By Andrew Rathbun
The hovercraft in front of your squad just committed a violation in your presence. Your lights are automatically activated by the in-car artificial intelligence computer. The violating hovercraft proceeds to a halt and you exit your patrol. You approach the hovercraft, the sound of your Robocop-like uniform clanking on the concrete.
While this is what the 1980s wanted us to think police work would look like in the year 2030, we can safely assume this will not exactly be reality in the next decade. However, given the recent developments in technology, we can speculate what a traffic stop could look like in the next decade or so compared to generations past.
Regardless of how much technology has evolved over the decades, traffic stops have largely remained the same and likely will not change much in the near future: A violation is observed, and the occupants of the vehicle are temporarily detained on the side of the road while the traffic stop is investigated. This includes checking for warrants and other potential crimes; traffic stops are still one of the most effective tools patrol officers can use for proactive crime prevention.
What about vehicles that are not controlled by humans? That begs the question of whether traffic stops will be as prevalent in our daily patrols. If humans are no longer able to control vehicles, vehicles can no longer be stolen – but they can be hacked. If something runs on a computer, eventually someone will figure out a way to hack it. This becomes a significant cybersecurity issue. Arguably, the legal definition of automobile theft would have to evolve to include the hacking of self-driving vehicles in this reality.
While a lot of these issues remain unknown, officers can safely speculate that the world in 2030 won’t look like “The Jetsons” cartoon show as we probably thought it would decades ago. Instead of hovering cars, self-driving vehicles are right around the corner. One can only imagine the daily implications of self-driving vehicles on society, let alone traffic.
What potential violations could a self-driving vehicle commit? Lane change, speed, running traffic lights and countless other violations would be things of the past. This assumes, of course, that the vehicle is programmed to obey posted speed limits, use proper turn signals and follow all laws.
Equipment violations such as blown headlights and brake lights are essentially what’s left once the human element is taken out of the equation. Law enforcement and legislation will have to determine whether the manufacturer or the occupants of the vehicle at the time of the incident are responsible for equipment violations.
In the age of self-driving vehicles, the potential to catch other, bigger violations such as drugs or warrants would decrease dramatically when conducting a traffic stop. This would also decrease the incidence of high-speed police chases. A combination of artificial intelligence in self-driving vehicles communicating with smart traffic lights and emergency vehicles could mean a suspect’s vehicle would automatically stop or pull over when a cop’s emergency lights are activated.
Additionally, routes to emergency scenes would be plotted for the fastest response based on current traffic patterns as monitored by traffic sensors. This could make the roads a much safer place on an emergency run and effectively eliminate fleeing and eluding incidents.
What if you locate contraband in a self-driving vehicle? It is predicted that people in the future will share self-driving vehicles, ultimately decreasing the total number of vehicles on the road, whether manned or automated. This would make prosecution more difficult for crimes that have allegedly occurred in the vehicle given that multiple citizens could have shared the space inside the vehicle. This could be a nightmare for detectives and prosecutors trying to identify who was in possession of illegal contraband found within a self-driving vehicle shared by potentially hundreds of people a day.
Research indicates that widespread use of self-driving cars is potentially less than five years away, with estimates reaching upwards of 10 million self-driving cars on the road by 2020. This is merely a few fiscal years away for any municipality.
Other vehicle technologies soon may have an impact on our profession. Embedded dash cameras, potentially a staple in new cars, would revolutionize the insurance claims process and provide assistance for accident investigations. License plate readers are now used on a larger scale around the United States. These tools have potential to make a dent in the amount of stolen vehicles roaming the streets.
No traffic stop is routine, as we’ve learned in the police academy and through our experience on patrol. It’s safe to assume the traffic stop is going to evolve with new technologies being developed, commercialized and implemented into everyday vehicles, including police vehicles.
These are exciting times as technology has grown more rapidly than it has in generations past. It would be wise for law enforcement to adapt quickly to new technologies rather than play catch up as we’ve done in the past. That way, we can have a hand in writing the script rather than responding to the one that’s been written for us.
About the author
Detective Andrew Rathbun is a five-year veteran with the Michigan State University Police Department. He also served in the United States Marine Corps Reserve as a rifleman, including a combat tour to Fallujah, Iraq, and he works with the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency on various PTSD awareness campaigns.