If there’s one patent that I hope an automaker shelves for the remainder of human existence, it’s Ford’s patent for an autonomous police car.
Ford applied for a patent (which was only recently published) for an autonomous system with a police car that can either act on its own or alongside a traditional human officer. The robot cop — but not RoboCop — can determine when a violation has occurred on the road, and it can take various actions.
Here’s an example scenario of how Ford’s system would work, which is not at all dystopian and terrifying.
US Patent and Trademark Office
It can refer the case to a local speed camera or another connected sensor for corroborating evidence. It could also begin a pursuit of the vehicle in question, or if it’s something simple like a warning or a speeding ticket, it can just wirelessly communicate the violation directly to the offending vehicle, which can respond with an image of the driver’s license to ensure the ticket reaches the right person.
Sounds awful, right? You’re not crazy for saying yes — it’s horrifying. Hopefully, the AI in the car is programmed to be on the lenient side. Good luck trying to cry your way out of a ticket when you’re crying in the direction of millions of lines of code.
Now, before you start digging out your backyard to build an AI-proof bunker that you’ll live in forever, there are a few things that need to be noted. Primarily, a patent does not guarantee future technology — Ford could have patented the idea just to prevent anyone else from doing it. Applying for all sorts of patents is not out of the ordinary for an automaker.
There’s also the matter of automated ticketing. Red-light cameras and speed cameras have come under fire in recent years for doing police work without a police officer present. While it’s true that cops can’t be everywhere all of the time, and thus crimes will slip through the cracks, these cases show that the public is already wary of automated policing before super-AIs and self-driving cars were even part of the discussion (and they still aren’t, really).
Nevertheless, it’s intriguing to see how the industry views the role of policing as we move toward autonomous vehicles. As Ford’s patent application points out, AVs might be incapable of breaking the law, but if there’s a human-driven mode, there’s still a need to watch over the roads.
Update, Jan. 26: This story has been updated to reflect that the patent is an application and was only recently published, despite being filed in 2016.
Here’s how the whole system would work, but I’m really only putting this image here so that we can all mock Ford because they are very bad at drawing police cars.