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Could self-driving cars be one solution to police shootings during traffic stops?

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The shooting death of Philando Castile in a St. Paul suburb last week started out as a police traffic stop for a broken taillight.

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It’s a familiar refrain when it comes to officer-involved shootings that result in the deaths of black men and women around the country: A traffic stop – a seemingly routine interaction between police and civilians – swiftly escalates to a lethal altercation.

Philando Castile was stopped 52 times by police

Of the more than 1,500 fatal shootings by police in the United States since the beginning of 2015, 11 percent started out as traffic stops, according to the Washington Post’s police shootings database. Of those people who died at traffic stops, 34 percent were black.

But what if traffic stops ceased to occur at all?

Among the much-hyped benefits of self-driving car technology — fewer car crashes, improved traffic flow, the ability to read or snooze while commuting — few experts have spoken about the impacts that the rise of autonomous vehicles will have on communities of color.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear that self-driving cars stand to completely alter the method and frequency of interactions between police and the motorists who are most likely to be pulled over.

How Philando Castile’s killing changed the way blacks talk about traffic stops

“It’s not a panacea,” said John Frank Weaver, an attorney with Mclane Middleton who focuses on artificial intelligence and autonomous technology. “But self-driving technologies may minimize the number of discretion-based traffic stops … and reduce driving-while-black discrimination.”

Think about it: Once self-driving cars take over the roads, many of the most common reasons for traffic stops will become obsolete. There will be no more speeding tickets, because the cars are programmed to obey the speed limit. Cars will independently flash signals when changing lanes to warn non-robot drivers. They will automatically stop at red lights.

And some of the technology that comes with autonomous cars – such as vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which allows cars to communicate with another and surrounding infrastructure – could mean that the decision to conduct traffic stops is based less on an individual officer’s observations, and more on computers – leaving less room for bias in who gets pulled over most frequently. (It’s the kind of technological evolution that’s occurred in forms of traffic enforcement: In some cities, the installation of red-light cameras at intersections caused the racial demographics of people who received citations to shift and better reflect the population of the surrounding community.)

Of course, the United States is still many years from seeing fully-autonomous vehicles become the norm on highways and streets. And even then, people may still be pulled over for having a broken taillight or outdated registration. (Though maybe not: Cars could be programmed to stay parked once their registration expires — and what’s the point of taillights when vehicles detect other cars with lasers and broadband signals?)

And, as Bryant Walker Smith of the University of South Carolina School of Law points out, police will still be in charge of stepping in during altercations that occur between people in self-driving cars – an occurrence that may become more common as Uber and Lyft switch to autonomous taxis for rideshare services.

But, on the occasions when people are pulled over for infractions while inside a self-driving car, people may be able to use the car’s built-in recording technology to serve as an inward-facing dashcam, automatically shooting real-time video of exactly what transpires between the officer and the car’s passengers.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the last live-streaming traffic stop,” Weaver said, “and that eventually will come from the car itself.”

Self-driving cars will change more than just traffic. Here’s why.

Still, there’s a problem: Poor people will be the last to benefit from the impacts of self-driving technology, according to Jay L. Zagorsky, economist at The Ohio State University. Already, self-driving technology is being introduced to luxury car brands, with corresponding high prices.

“Rich white people are going to be the ones who buy autonomous vehicles and avoid getting pulled over by the police,” Zagorsky said, adding that it will take years for that technology to trickle down to budget cars.

And in the meantime, the disparity between people who own self-driving cars and people who don’t could mean that police will focus their traffic enforcement efforts on people who can’t afford to upgrade to cars that automatically follow the rules.

“Given the fixed number of police and fewer people to pull over, the focus will be on non-autonomous cars driven by poorer individuals,” Zagorsky said. “Autonomous cars could be good for them in the long-run, but in the short-run, you’ll probably see more traffic stops.”

Steven Rich contributed to this report.