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How driverless cars could cripple police revenues

The numbers are staggering: Close to 41 million people are issued speeding tickets in the U.S. every year, paying out more than $6.2 billion per year, according to statistics from the U.S. Highway Patrol published at StatisticBrain.com.

On the polar end of that stat is the big fat zero: Google claims that none of their self-driving cars had ever been ticketed in Mountain View or elsewhere.

Google’s driverless cars have now combined to drive more than 700,000 miles on public roads without receiving one citation, according to media reports.

What is troubling to law enforcement agencies is how the rise of self-driving cars could correlate to a steep drop in police budgets. As Popular Science noted, a 2009 study examined data over a 13-year period in North Carolina, finding a “statistically significant correlation between a drop in local government revenue one year, and more traffic tickets the next year.”

Self-driving cars, like the technology developed by Google, are designed to abide by speed limits — but what if a glitch causes a speeding infraction? Who gets the ticket? As the Atlantic points out, “When the car is in operation, there is someone sitting in the driver’s seat, but that person isn’t actually doing anything. Perhaps the ticket should go to the programmer who wrote the algorithm that made the mistake?”

A Mountain View PD told the Atlantic: “Right now the California Vehicle Code reads that the person seated in the driver’s seat is responsible for the movement of the vehicle. Exceptions being someone grabbing the steering wheel and forcing the car off the roadway, etc.”

If the incident is more closely related to an accident than a road infraction, what then? As the New York Times writes, criminal penalties are tricky for driver-free cars, because robots cannot be charged with a crime.

“Criminal law is going to be looking for a guilty mind, a particular mental state — should this person have known better?” Ryan Calo, who studies robotics law at the University of Washington School of Law, told the Times. “If you’re not driving the car, it’s going to be difficult.”

Google is “very actively” working on how to put its driverless cars to public use in the next three years, as the Financial Times notes.

“While this project is very much in the experimental stage, it provides a glimpse of what transportation might look like in the future thanks to advanced computer science,” said Sebastian Thrun, a Google Fellow working on the company’s self-driving cars, according to Time. “And that future is very exciting.”

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