An internal FBI report reveals that officials within the law-enforcement agency have serious concerns about the potential impact of driverless cars being developed by Google and other companies in high-speed pursuits of criminals and even terrorist bomb attacks on civilian targets.
The document, which is “unclassified but highly restricted,” according to a July 16 report by The (London) Guardian newspaper, said that the FBI views such vehicles as a serious concern for law-enforcement authorities in the future. “Google’s driverless car may remain a prototype, but the FBI believes the ‘game-changing’ vehicle could revolutionize high-speed car chases within a matter of years,” according to the story. “The report also warned that autonomous cars may be used as ‘lethal weapons.'”
The FBI report, which The Guardian said was obtained under a public records request, “predicts that autonomous cars ‘will have a high impact on transforming what both law enforcement and its adversaries can operationally do with a car.'” Among the chief concerns is that “bad actors will be able to conduct tasks that require [the] use of both hands, or [the ability to take] one’s eyes off the road, which would be impossible today.”
Such scenarios could also potentially allow crime suspects to one day be able to shoot “at pursuers from getaway cars that are driving themselves,” the report states. The document was written by agents in the Strategic Issues Group within the FBI’s Directorate of Intelligence, according to The Guardian.
Driverless vehicles “will also open up greater possibilities for dual-use applications and ways for a car to be more of a potential lethal weapon that it is today,” the report states, according to the paper. “This presumably reflects fears that criminals might override safety features to ignore traffic lights and speed limits, or that terrorists might program explosive-packed cars to become self-driving bombs.”
At the same time, the FBI report does acknowledge that driverless cars could have benefits, including the potential to reduce the number of serious vehicle collisions on the nations’ roadways because of their built-in safety and navigational technologies, the paper reported. “The risk is that distraction or poor judgment leading to [collisions] that [stem] from manual operation would be substantially reduced,” the report states.
In addition, since vehicles such as Google’s driverless cars presently are built to have a top speed of only 25 mph, concerns about high-speed chase potential could eventually be moot, the FBI states in its report.
The FBI analysis is interesting either way, especially because it looks at the potential use of a seemingly benign vehicle as a potential tool for criminals and terrorists in the future. One must wonder if such crazy thoughts ever entered into the minds of Google researchers and others experimenting with such technologies as they created their vehicles.
Responding to an email inquiry from eWEEK, Google declined to comment about the FBI concerns.
The self-driving vehicle project was launched by Google in 2010 as a research effort to see how such vehicles could be used to save peoples’ lives, cut driving time, and curb carbon emissions and pollution. The project began using Toyota Prius hybrid vehicles with trained operators all over the roads and highways of California, and since has expanded to other vehicles. So far, the vehicles have traveled more than 700,000 miles as part of the effort.
Google Driverless Cars Raise FBI Worries About Criminal Use
In May, Google announced that it is taking another huge step in its pursuit of developing self-driving cars by choosing to build its next generations of the vehicles on its own, rather than using modified cars from existing automakers. The next generation of Google self-driving cars will be similar to its first generations, which are designed to operate safely and autonomously without requiring human intervention.
The vehicles have no steering wheels, accelerator pedals or brake pedals. Instead, Google’s software and sensors do all the work of driving, according to the company. Google plans to build about 100 prototype vehicles, with testing to begin with the early models later this summer. Those early models will include manual controls as backups while the vehicles are tested and proven. Inside the prototypes, there will be few creature comforts, but there will be two seatbelt-equipped seats, a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route.
The vehicles will be equipped with special sensors and hardware that give them their self-driving capabilities while also including special safety features such as a flexible windshield and a foam-like front end to protect pedestrians in the event of a crash, according to Google. The vehicles will also include electric batteries for propulsion as well as primary and backup systems for steering and braking. The first artist’s renderings and photos of the vehicles display a rounded design that looks a bit like stylized versions of early Volkswagen Beetles.
Previous Google self-driving vehicles so far have included Toyota Prius and Lexus models.
More than 1.2 million people die in traffic accidents each year around the world (some 3,400 per day) and about 93 percent of those crashes are due to human error, according to Google. That’s a key area where the idea of self-driving cars can eventually be beneficial, the company maintains.
In April 2014, Google announced that it had started a new effort to teach its self-driving vehicles how to master the challenges of city driving, such as heavy traffic, pedestrians and other urban hazards. The work is continuing to help teach the self-driving cars all the things they need to know as Google might expand its program in the future. The traffic scene in city driving is much different from the freeway driving that the self-driving cars have done so far.
Since Google’s last update on its self-driving car program back in August 2012, the company has logged thousands of miles on the streets of Mountain View, Calif., where Google is headquartered.
Before an automated car takes to the road, Google sends out a driver to map the route and road conditions, logging lane markers and traffic signs to become familiar with terrain, according to an earlier eWEEK report. This road information is relayed to software in Google’s data centers.
Armed with this intelligence, the automated hybrid cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, along with detailed maps. The cars stop at stop signs and traffic lights completely on their own. A trained safety operator sits in the driver seat to take the wheel in case the software goes buggy while a Google software engineer rides in the passenger seat to monitor the car’s software.