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How Self-Driving Cars Could Protect Minority Drivers

Data capture and carefully programmed driving could reduce the number of pretexts for vehicle stops.

The fatal shooting of Philando Castile in July 2016, live streamed by his girlfriend Diamond Reynolds on Facebook, was a grisly reminder of the extreme violence that can unfold after a routine traffic stop.

The Castile case became a cause célèbre for the Black Lives Matter movement, and the officer involved was subsequently charged with manslaughter; but even when outcomes aren't as tragic or dramatic, groups like the ACLU have long contended that traffic stops are one more area in which racial bias in policing is played out, to the detriment of non-white drivers.

Autonomous vehicles could have as yet unforeseen effects on vehicle crime, but it's also worth considering how they will change the relationship between traffic police and drivers, and whether this will impact what's been seen as a disproportionate burden of stops on black drivers. (The US government's own National Institute of Justice accepts that non-white drivers are stopped more frequently than whites, although falls short of concluding that racial bias is to blame).

To understand this, it's important to look at how routine stops are used strategically by police, and how an officer's intent to search a vehicle is circumscribed by the provisions of the Fourth Amendment. Under the Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, a police officer can't just stop a vehicle without any probable cause of a crime being committed. That principle gives rise to what are known as 'pretext stops': cases where a vehicle is pulled over for a minor infraction (e.g. "driving with a busted tail light" as the movie cliché goes) as a pretext to investigate a more serious crime such as drug possession or intoxication. Of course, there are so many possible minor infractions that police can pull you over for almost anything, so it's here that accusations have been made of a racial bias in who gets stopped.

John Frank Weaver, an attorney focused on emerging technology and a contributing writer at Slate (where he has written on self-driving cars and traffic stops), says that autonomous vehicles can help drivers both by eliminating human error violations, and collecting on-board data that could be useful in court.

"The hope is that when the car is driving, the way it will drive because of programming and design will give less flexibility to law enforcement to make arbitrary stops," Weaver said in a phone call. He added: "If the autonomous mode is on when a stop occurs there will need to be a solid reason for that stop, because the potential defendant will be able to say that the reasons given are refuted by the autonomous function, and the recordings made by the car will show this was an unconstitutional or racially based stop."

Weaver said that he is optimistic that self-driving cars will result in fewer race-based stops in the future, but also emphasized that the memory of discrimination will not be easy to erase.

"To the extent that trust has been lost between minority communities and the police, it will take a long time of those kind of stops being reduced by autonomous vehicles before it can be regained," he said.

Contacted via email, the California Highway Patrol—which has had to be proactive in regulation of autonomous vehicles thanks to road tests from the likes of Google and others—said that it was currently involved in several working groups at state and national level dealing with autonomous vehicles, but that findings could not be discussed publicly at this stage.

An accompanying statement also said: "The Department's enforcement efforts are consistent with the organizational values of respect for others, fairness, ethical practices, and equitable treatment for all. Accordingly, all enforcement action by members must be based on sound professional judgment and accomplished in an impartial, courteous, and consistent manner.

Under current state and federal law, officers in the performance of their duties shall not discriminate based on ethnic, racial, religious, or socioeconomic background. The primary purpose of the CHP is traffic safety and officers enforce the California Vehicle Code (CVC) with the goal of ensuring and maximizing the safety of the thousands of motorists on California roads and highways every day."

Of course, it would be naïve to think that vehicle automation (or other kinds of automation for that matter) will be enough do away with the problem of institutional racism, and a counter-argument would be to suggest that we'll simply see new forms of traffic violation enforced. Underlying both sides of the argument is a deeper point that radical changes to something as fundamental as transport become sociological as much as technical, so trying to study and anticipate these effects is key to socially just outcomes in future.