Even Paul Verhoeven’s 1986 classic “Robocop,” prescient as it was, could not envision autonomous police cars that could process suspects, extract payments, offer a hearing before a judge via videophone, or drive suspects to jail. Indeed, combining two of America’s favorite pastimes — cars and litigation — has not been imagined on the silver screen in a manner so complete before.
Motorola’s patent for an autonomous police car packs quite a few functions of the criminal justice system into a car, enough not only for Uber drivers but for police officers to worry about job security in the age of autonomy. And it looks like it’s only a few years away from reality, as most of the tech presented in the patent looks 80 percent ready with current technology.
First, Motorola’s “mobile law enforcement communication system” is a Level 5 autonomous vehicle, meaning no driver is needed. But the autonomous car is not the most important thing here, it turns out, and Level 5 autonomy itself is not too far in the future if autonomous car developers are to be believed. Second, the car features facial recognition software — already in use — and fingerprint scanners, allowing the car to identify suspects and pull up their records. There’s also a built-in breathalyzer.
Then it gets weird, at least from a due process standpoint. The car can read you your rights (unfortunately not in ED-209’s voice), and allows you to reach your lawyer and a judge via videophone. Once a bail amount is set, you can swipe your credit card directly in the car.
“Depending on the infraction, the order of the processing may be varied,” the patent application says. “For example, the testing for drugs and/or alcohol may be part of an initial detention, followed by an arrest as a result of affirmative test results. In accordance with some embodiments, the arrest of an individual and placement within the vehicle is followed by communication system providing the detainee with a reading and visual presentation of legal rights in the detainee’s primary language.”
The autonomous car, fortunately, is not judge, jury and executioner, so it won’t be able to taze suspects if they don’t have the bail money and their card is declined. (At least not yet).
“The processing and posting of bail may also be performed by the vehicle communication system using a virtual assistant and payment processing device, thereby minimizing delays in court room judicial proceedings,” the patent application says. “For example, banking information and pin codes may be entered to a payment processing device within the vehicle and/or verbally provided to the virtual assistant.”
We already know what you’re thinking: This is exactly the future America I imagined, one that uses machines to extract payments for minor infractions, leveraging the cash bail system to nickel and dime citizens for minor crimes.
“For example, the individual may enable payment of the entire bail amount to the court, or provide the court a security interest in real property, or contract with a bail bondsman to post the bail,” the patent promises. “For example, in response to a verbal input from the detainee to the virtual assistant (for example, “contact bond company”), the communication system contacts a bail bond company, the bond company may post the bond and transmit a confirmation of bond payment back to the communication system. The processing and posting of bail may also be performed by the vehicle communication system using a virtual assistant and payment processing device, thereby minimizing delays in court room judicial proceedings.”
We looked at Ford’s latest cop car when specs leaked earlier this year. It doesn’t seem too crazy on the spec-sheet — the standard all-wheel-drive system should help officers get traction …
We have a few qualms about this, as you might imagine, and none of them have to do with videophones or autonomous cars.
Rather, most of them concern the creeping advance of automated for-profit policing that at the moment is (thankfully) largely confined to automated traffic cameras with license plate recognition systems, a percentage of the tickets from which are received by the makers of traffic cameras. This patent takes it a step further, effectively promising a “solution” for police departments that streamlines and expedites the kind of work now performed by humans. The police officer, the lawyer, and the judge are still there to “help” the process along, but it’s difficult to see this as anything but a more advanced version of a reverse ATM that drives itself around, accepting payments for minor crimes.
The key out of the car is to swipe your card or “provide the court a security interest in real property,” as the patent points out, betraying the for-profit policing aspect of the whole contraption. Cash payments at the “point of sale” are already a practice in some jurisdictions when it comes to traffic tickets, being more attractive to local departments and to city governments than solving burglaries, for instance. Just like traffic cameras can be scaled up to grow revenue, so can other types of automated payment processing systems that rely on our criminal justice system’s love of money, rather than concern public safety. Blasted at 40 mph through a 35 mph zone, or jaywalked on an empty street at 1am? Here comes the car to process you. Don’t have enough on your bank card for bail? Go directly to jail, as the Monopoly game says.
“The processes and proceedings involved in law enforcement communications are oftentimes complex and time consuming,” the patent notes. “The system can often be plagued by minor incidents or infractions taking up law enforcement resources, holding facility space, and court time.”
The future of law enforcement is pay-and-go — something that small municipalities in the U.S. figured out decades ago — using this type of policing to keep itself running as a kind of perpetual Rube Goldberg device that contributes little to public safety, nickel-and-diming non-wealthy residents into bankruptcy.
As much as we’d like to imagine that this system will allow police officers to redirect resources to solving crimes that go unsolved in overworked departments, traffic infraction cameras have sadly proven to be an addiction for some cities, so we shouldn’t be surprised that an autonomous “reverse ATM” for minor infractions and misdemeanors is already being cooked up by tech giants.