THE TEMPTATION IS the greatest on nights when the evening rush seems to congeal around the car, and she just wants to be home. She waits until she has left downtown (too many traffic towers), and then, with a few taps to a screen, she goes for it. Chinese software hacks come well recommended, and it’s soon clear why: The car picks up speed and begins to weave through the slower traffic — pleasingly aggressive but more sure in its lines, with less lurching, than the typical Russian black-market goods. She returns to her movie, but before long she hears a chime and a grating alert: “Traffic ticket assessed.” She spots a police car speeding past, a quad drone fixed to the roof, as her own vehicle reverts to its factory settings and rejoins the docile march of the lemmings.
In the coming world of ubiquitous self-driving, it will just be you, the open road and the vast apparatus of the nanny state. Cars won’t readily violate traffic laws and may well be legally required to report on their owners. Ignore that burned-out headlight for too long, and the overnight software update may include a virtual boot.
Traffic tickets bring in billions of dollars annually, so all those well-behaved cars will have an economic impact. Governments that have historically viewed traffic citations as an extractive industry (Ferguson, Mo., say, or the State of California) will have no choice but to find alternatives. Far more consequential, for both the police and their communities, will be the death of the routine traffic stop. The Supreme Court has ruled that law enforcement may stop any car, whatever its true motive, as long as an infraction is observed. Human drivers can’t get far without breaking the letter of the traffic law, so the pretexts come easy. If officers then spot a dozen laptops stacked on the back seat, they can ask questions. Yet this broad, virtually unchecked power to stop has led to charges of racial profiling. (A recent linguistic analysis of bodycam footage from Oakland, Calif., for example, concluded that officers spoke “with consistently less respect toward black versus white community members.”) With pretexts largely automated away, these kinds of interactions will be rare. “The self-driving car,” says Elizabeth Joh, a professor at the U.C. Davis School of Law, “will come to be seen as a civil rights issue.”
The police will have lost an important investigative tool, but the government will have gained new surveillance possibilities. Cars will sweep up vast amounts of data about their surroundings and their occupants, including 24/7 GPS trails. (An important Fourth Amendment case being heard this fall, Carpenter v. United States, will decide whether the government needs a warrant to gain access to cellphone locational data, setting a precedent that could apply to cars.)
Another potential target is the pedestrian. In the first part of the 20th century, manufacturers lobbied to make “jaywalking” a crime, so the new horseless carriages could cruise along urban streets relatively unimpeded. The pedestrians of the future, emboldened by the fact that self-driving cars are sure to stop, could cause havoc. No worries, though: Facial-recognition technology is coming along nicely, and the automotive industry will be, if anything, even more powerful. Look for today’s complaints about speeding tickets to be replaced by stories of “jaywalking traps” and pitiless fines for a second offense.
Gareth Cook is a contributing writer for the magazine. His last article was about cancer.