Cops May Feel the Biggest Impact from Driverless Car Revolution

Recently, the McKinsey Global Institute published an article that predicted self-driving cars will disrupt major parts of the economy. Positive numbers from the article, such as 90% of all accidents would be prevented and commuters would gain 50 minutes a day of free time were trumpeted in the news. The press also focused on industries that would be harmed by self-driving cars. The two largest industries McKinsey pointed out that would be hurt are auto insurers and auto repair shops. McKinsey, however, missed one of the key impacts of self-driving cars in their study. Self-driving cars will have a tremendous impact on police forces around the world.

While the goal of police and law enforcement is to reduce and prevent serious crime, much of actual day-to-day police work deals with handling traffic enforcement and accidents. Self-driving cars mean far fewer police will be needed for these tasks.

The impact on police employment can be determined from Bureau of Justice Statistics (BOJ) surveys. Every three years the BOJ determines why people in the US have contact with the police. The most recent survey from 2011 shows (in appendix table 1) that 31 million people were involuntarily stopped by the police during the year. Of these 31 million stops, over 85% were traffic related.

The survey shows the most likely reason people are pulled over for a traffic violation is speeding. Speeding laws are on the books because slowing drivers down reduces the number of accidents and reduces fatalities when an accident does occur. Autonomous cars, programmed to obey all traffic rules, will eliminate the need for enforcement of speed limits. Illegal turns, running stop signs and many other traffic infractions will also be eliminated when cars drive themselves.

The police, however, do more than stop people for potential wrong-doing. The same survey also shows that an additional 32 million people had other contacts with the police, such as participating in community policing programs or reporting a problem. Of these 32 million other contacts, 17% were because of traffic accidents. Combined, over half of all contacts that people have with the police are related to vehicles. Almost all of these issues would go away once autonomous cars take over the roads, meaning the number of law enforcement professionals could be cut in half without reducing public safety. Earlier surveys, which track just face-to-face contacts, raise the percentage to almost 60%.

Half or more of law enforcement professionals is a large number. The latest Justice Department census reports about 1.2 million people were employed in local, county and state police forces. Any reduction of police forces will impact local and state government budgets, which spend about $100 billion a year providing citizens with police protection, plus billions more for retired officers’ pensions and health care. Active police forces comprise 5% of all local government spending. Reducing that spending without impacting public safety would make many politicians and tax payers quite happy.

Autonomous cars would also have a positive impact by reducing police deaths. Each year a number of police officers are killed in the line of duty. Since 2004 over 600 officers have died in accidents. Of these 600, roughly 100 officers have died after being hit by a vehicle and over 400 have died in a car or motorcycle accident.

There is an important negative impact of self-driving cars on crime. Around 4% of all people stopped for traffic violations each day are searched by the police. Some of these searches result in drivers being arrested on more serious charges. Routine traffic violations have uncovered drugs, weapons and revealed people with outstanding warrants. One of the most famous traffic stops was when a state trooper stopped and arrested Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1995 for not having a license plate on his car. Self-driving cars which are programmed to obey traffic laws will not be stopped. This will reduce the number of arrests and reduce the number of crimes solved.

It is important to think about the impact of autonomous vehicles because they are not science fiction. Google’s self-driving car has already driven over 300,000 miles in California and Nevada without an accident. McKinsey identified a dramatic reduction in the auto repair business as a major casualty of self-driving cars. The automotive body and glass repair business, however, employs fewer than 250,000 people nationwide. The employment impact of self-driving cars will affect considerably more people in law enforcement than in auto repair because law enforcement employs far more people.

Google's Self-Driving Car

Google’s Self-Driving Car From

We should not eliminate half of our police forces today since only a few autonomous cars are currently on the road. However, when autonomous vehicles appear widely on roads the need for much traffic enforcement will disappear. Autonomous vehicles will also reduce accidents. This will mean fewer police officers needed to take statements, reroute traffic around accident scenes and help deal with the aftermath. Whose jobs will really disappear when self-driving cars take over? The answer is clear: the change will have a major impact on law enforcement.


Note: A slightly different version of this blog appeared on March 16, 2015 in “The Conversation” and is found here.

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