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Ford wants to patent a driverless police car that ambushes lawbreakers using artificial intelligence

This image from a recently published Ford patent application shows an autonomous police vehicle intercepting cars using surveillance and artificial intelligence. (USPTO)

Imagine a police car that issues tickets without even pulling you over.

What if the same car could use artificial intelligence to find good hiding spots to catch traffic violators and identify drivers by scanning license plates, tapping into surveillance cameras and wirelessly accessing government records?

What if a police officer tapping on your car window asking for your license and registration became a relic of transportation’s past?

The details may sound far-fetched, as if they belong in the science-fiction action flick “Demolition Man” or a new dystopian novel inspired by Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” but these scenarios are grounded in a potential reality. They come from a patent developed by Ford and being reviewed by the U.S. government to create autonomous police cars. Ford’s patent application was published this month.

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Although experts claim autonomous vehicles will make driving safer and more rule-bound, Ford argues in its application that in the future, traffic violations will never disappear entirely.

“While autonomous vehicles can and will be programmed to obey traffic laws, a human driver can override that programming to control and operate the vehicle at any time,” the patent’s application says. “When a vehicle is under the control of a human driver there is a possibility of violation of traffic laws. Thus, there will still be a need to police traffic.”

The patent application says that autonomous police vehicles don’t necessarily replace the need for human police officers for catching traffic scofflaws. Some “routine tasks,” such as issuing tickets for failure to stop at a stop sign, can be automated, the patent says, but other tasks that can’t be automated will be left to people.

The application, which was filed in July 2016 and includes elaborate diagrams depicting the autonomous police car interacting with its environment, says officers could be inside the vehicle at all times and reclaim control of the car when necessary.

But the application also shows how an autonomous police vehicle could be able to carry out many tasks we associate with human officers.

In one scenario, a surveillance camera or roadside sensor documents a speeding vehicle. A signal is relayed through a “central computing system” to the autonomous police vehicle, which is tasked with pursuing the vehicle, tracking its location and capturing video that can be used to analyze the fleeing vehicle’s movement.

In another, the police vehicle analyzes traffic patterns using machine learning — a type of artificial intelligence that gives computers the ability to learn without being programmed — to determine ideal spots for catching traffic violators. Once a hiding spot has been located, the vehicle uses sensors — lasers, cameras or some combination thereof — to monitor traffic in the most efficient way possible, according to the patent.

“Autonomous police vehicle may determine the threshold speed for a given section of road by searching a local traffic laws database for a legal speed limit for that section of road or by querying remote central computing system,” the patent says.

The vehicle would be able to communicate wirelessly with other vehicles on the road and determine whether a car is in self-driving mode or being controlled by a human driver, according to the patent. The patent says the offending vehicle would be able to communicate with the police car as well, providing  a driver’s license, for example.

Like traffic cameras already in use, tickets could be issued remotely, the application notes, and a record of the incident could be sent to a police station or a department of motor vehicles.

But Ford noted in a statement that even if the patent is approved, it does not ensure that a product will be produced.

“We submit patents on innovative ideas as a normal course of business,” the statement said. “Patent applications are intended to protect new ideas but aren’t necessarily an indication of new business or product plans.”

Correction: A previous version of the story said that the patent was granted earlier this month. Its application is still being reviewed by the US Patent and Trademark Office. This version has been corrected.


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