Computers Aren’t Perfect Drivers or Policemen

Photograph by Mary Evans/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection

Researchers say automated policing technologies, such as red-light cameras, are flawed.

Troubled by computers’ increasing role in controlling cars and policing traffic, Lisa Shay decided to do some research using (what else) a computer.

In an experiment last month, Shay, a U.S. Army colonel, tracked the precision of her car’s cruise control. According to the computer readout, the car didn’t always maintain the right speed. Wind, hills and potholes would cause constant changes in velocity, at times significant enough that a police camera could flag her for speeding. While going down one hill, Shay’s speed increased 8 miles per hour faster than the cruise control setting.

The experiment demonstrates shortcomings in technologies commonly used on the road. As cameras replace traditional law-enforcement functions, such as catching speeders or people running red lights, experts are questioning whether it’s fair to penalize people when their cars’ computers are to blame.

A speed camera is unforgiving, potentially giving tickets to drivers even when their cruise-control systems are set below the speed limit, according to Shay, who presented the findings with her research partners Greg Conti and Woodrow Hartzog at the Defcon hacker conference in Las Vegas.

“There are tangible benefits for most of this technology,” Shay said in an interview. “The trick is to find the balance.”

To give drivers some leeway, the cameras could be programmed to allow people to go slightly above the speed limit, which many people do anyway, but no amount of coding can evaluate a situation the way a human can, she said. Machines don’t have much compassion for people rushing to the hospital or to help a friend in need.

“There’s no legal infrastructure set up at all to respond to automated enforcement,” said Hartzog, a Samford University law professor. “There are a lot of problems that will arise after the system has become entrenched, and it’s hard to change at that point.”

While red-light cameras could allow police to focus on other tasks besides waiting for violators, they have caused quite a bit of controversy. The cameras have been the target of legal challenges and questions about their accuracy.

“There are so many different ways to manipulate technologies to increase violations or decrease violations,” Hartzog said, “and we need to have this conversation now before these systems are entrenched.”

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