New Jersey has decided to get ahead of the curve, which makes sense given how it’s been unpleasantly far behind for most of its existence. A bill has been approved by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee to require the attorney general to create a training program for police to deal with future tech, driverless cars.
The State Attorney General, in consultation with New Jersey’s Transportation Commissioner, would be required to create a training course to prepare law enforcement to interact with autonomous vehicles under a bill (A-4977) approved Monday by the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee. The legislation’s sponsors, Assembly Democrats Carol Murphy (D-Burlington), Annette Quijano (D-Union) and Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) released the following joint statement:
It certainly appears that autonomous cars will be here soon, although it’s unclear how soon it will be. There is much to commend them, and much to question. At the moment, the cars aren’t being tested in New Jersey, so it’s not as if they have even a tiny problem dealing with them. Yet.
It’s currently illegal to test or operate an autonomous vehicle on public highways in New Jersey, but we know the day is coming when driverless cars will become more and more common. We must ensure law enforcement is prepared in emergency and traffic stop situations when that day comes.
Sounds reasonable. After all, it’s hardly a stretch to believe they’re coming, and even if they don’t, being prepared won’t hurt. But the desire to “ensure” isn’t the equivalent of the ability to do so.
We know that in other states where autonomous vehicles are already being used, police have struggled with how to interact with the technology.
Have they struggled? How so? What are the problems with which police are struggling, since it would behoove a state with zero experience to look to a state with some experience, as opposed to just making up fantasy problems so you can create fantasy solutions. But even so, the cars are in the testing stage at the moment, so the problems experienced elsewhere may not be remotely reflective of the problems that will be experienced if and when they achieve general acceptance and use.
There’s a tendency to latch onto problems as they arise and, with the best of intentions, come up with solutions. It’s neither unfair nor unreasonable to assume that if one sees a problem on the horizon, the best reaction is to try to address it before harm is done. But there is always a problem doing so, in that we lock onto solutions and, once embraced, can’t let go of them.
This bill is preparing our state for a safer future by requiring the Attorney General to establish a training course that new law enforcement officers would be required to complete before being appointed to permanent status.
Training is the go-to answer for all purported structural problems with cops, as if they need to be carefully trained to figure out that black people aren’t more violent or criminalish because of skin color. Here, Jersey seeks to add a driverless car piece to their mandatory training regime required for permanent police status. Perhaps it will fill the soon-to-be-vacant slot for Implicit Bias training, now that we know that’s bunk.
But isn’t this a good thing, at the very least that New Jersey is trying to get ahead of the curve, looking at problems down the road and trying to be prepared for them?
Technology will always evolve and to keep up with it, our laws must too.
There’s the rub. Technology has proven itself to always stay one step ahead of the law, both in its existence and, independently, its use. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act was enacted in 1984. At the time, the world wide web was barely a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, but anticipation of problems propelled Congress to create a legal paradigm for what was certainly coming. It’s proven itself delightfully archaic, which is entirely understandable given that “technology will always evolve.” But it’s the “keep up with it” that sounds good but invariably falls short.
The CFAA has been amended quite a few times, in 1989, 1994, 1996, in 2001 by the USA PATRIOT Act, 2002, and in 2008 by the Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act. It’s not so much that Congress hasn’t tried to keep up with technology, though amendments tend more to deal with post-hoc transitory fixes rather than the foundational problems that remain from the original 1984 law, such as what “authorization” means.
The problem is that the amendments are all built on the original foundation, a law enacted when nobody had a clue what computer tech would bring or mean, where technology would go from here, from there, from wherever it is a year from now. Tech geeks pretend they have the answers. Academics do as well. And, of course lawyers try to have their say, even though we tend not to be as near the cutting edge of technology as we think.
And then there are politicians, who, like the legislators in Jersey, can’t begin to explain what it is they want their AG, their Transportation Commissioner, to accomplish, but they know this thing called autonomous cars is coming, and so something must be done. They’ve kicked the can to these folks to figure out what that something should be, not just to report back about what they find, what they think should be done, if anything, but to “just do it,” and make it mandatory for cops.
What’s a cop to do when he puts on his flashers behind a car with no driver? The snarky answer is that it won’t matter because those driverless cars will never do anything wrong. Of course, tech never goes wrong. The non-snarky answer, however, is that this is a known unknown, and that there will almost certainly be unknown unknowns to come. But whatever they come up with today will form the foundation for the future, no matter how well, or poorly, it anticipates what the future will bring.
Fifty years from now, cruising down the Jersey Turnpike watching the latest remake of A Star is Born, robocop will wirelessly command your autonomous vehicle to pull over for a pretext search. Whether you make it home for dinner may depend on what New Jersey’s AG comes up with today. Let’s hope they guess well.