The FBI is both worried and excited about driverless cars

An FBI report lays out both the potential for driverless cars to be used as weapons and its advantage as a surveillance tool.

071614 driverless cars

In a report recently obtained by The Guardian, the FBI expressed both concern for driverless cars being used as weapons in drive-by shootings or unmanned bombings and excitement about its potential use for surveillance and pursuit of suspects.

The ability for one person to travel in an autonomous vehicle while “multitasking” could make it easier for individual terrorists or bad actors to carry out attacks and flee the scene, the FBI report said. For example, a driver behind the wheel of an autonomous vehicle can carry out a drive-by shooting or other attack without having to control the car.

Just as concerning is the use of a driverless car as unmanned bombs, the FBI warned. The potential for entirely unmanned travel has been hailed as one of the more exciting benefits of driverless cars, evoking visions of a taxi-cab system of constantly available on-demand unmanned cars. But, the FBI warns, driverless cars are a double-edged sword, providing bad actors the capability of sneaking bombs into populated areas undetected. A driverless car could, theoretically, act as a suicide bomber without the suicide part.

Also among these concerns is the potential for terrorists to “override safety features to ignore traffic lights and speed limits.”

At the same time, however, the FBI also looks forward to adapting driverless car technology for its own uses.

“Surveillance will be made more effective and easier, with less of a chance that a patrol car will lose sight of a target vehicle,” the report says, according to The Guardian.

This may be more true than that sentence intends. Theoretically, a driverless car can be programmed to weave through traffic, sensing potentially unseen obstacles and evading them. But at the same time, suspects who choose a driverless car to commit a crime are intentionally putting themselves on the grid, enabling law enforcement to track them with GPS and other location-based tools. Then consider that law enforcement is already stocking up on unmanned drones, and by the time criminals get their hands on driverless cars, those who would pursue them likely will have the technology to do so from their desks.

The FBI report also provides some pretty great action-movie fodder in the age of driverless cars.

“In addition, 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.”

Even so, the FBI warns that “autonomous cars would likely face many hardships with evasive driving or car chases.”

Strangely, the FBI is among the most optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on how you read into this report) of those predicting the future of autonomous cars. The report expects Congress to approve driverless cars for use nationwide within the next five to seven years, according to The Guardian.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk has predicted that the company's driverless car will be street-ready by 2016, while Google expects to make its fully autonomous car commercially available by 2018. It’s interesting that both the companies that could benefit the most and the law enforcement agency that would face the worst share roughly the same expectation - that they’ll face the reality of driverless cars on the roads sooner rather than later.

Several experts in the field, however, don’t think driverless cars will have a meaningful impact on U.S. roadways until 2040.

I guess it can’t hurt to be prepared.

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