Ford Seeks Patent for AI-capable Autonomous Police Cars

The vehicle would be able to spot traffic offenders, offer pursuit, and issue tickets.


By Murray Slovick, Contributing Technical Writer

Last month, AAA released a study showing that people are slowly warming up to the idea of the autonomous car; only 63% of Americans indicated they are afraid of riding in a self-driving vehicle, down from 78% the previous year.

I suspect those surveyed haven’t been told about Ford Global Technologies’ 2016 patent application, published last month. The automaker applied for a patent on an autonomous police car that would be capable of detecting traffic violations such as speeding; pursuing the offending vehicle, if necessary;  then communicating via wireless network with the violator’s human driver to verify identity and issue a citation. All without human police intervention.

In United States Patent Application 180018869 (inventors: Mohamed Ahmad [Mountain View, Calif.], Harpreetsingh Banvait [Sunnyvale, Calif.], Alexandru Mihai Gurghian [Palo Alto, Calif.] and Francois Charette [Tracy, Calif.] ) Ford argues that “an autonomous vehicle can sense the environment and surrounding areas to navigate without human input. 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. 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.”

In part, the abstract of the Ford patent application reads as follows: “Techniques pertaining to an autonomous police vehicle are described. A method may involve a processor associated with an autonomous vehicle obtaining an indication of violation of one or more traffic laws by a first vehicle. The method may also involve the processor maneuvering the autonomous vehicle to pursue the first vehicle. The method may further involve the processor remotely executing one or more actions with respect to the first vehicle.”

Assuming most of you didn’t go to law school (nor did I), a layman’s account of the above paragraph would explain that the method involving a processor would include sensors (it specifies at least one camera, at least one laser gun, at least one light detection and ranging [LIDAR] sensor, at least one ultrasound sensor, at least one radar sensor, or any combination thereof), navigation, and mapping technology.

Further, the autonomous police car would be able to tap into surveillance cameras to spot infractions as well as recording the violation with its own cameras. The phrase “maneuvering the autonomous vehicle to pursue” is what it sounds like: the self driving car will chase you down, much as a manned police vehicle would.

An example scenario in which an autonomous police car could be utilized to enforce speeding and traffic light violations through the use of sensors and infrastructure equipment (such as traffic cameras). The vehicle would be capable of chasing down offenders and issuing a traffic ticket. The numbers in the illustration are referencing specific elements mentioned in the patent application. (Source: U.S., Patent Application 18001886)

Ford’s vision is for a police vehicle that isn’t just a car that drives itself, but one that also uses future AI capabilities to find surreptitious places to hide as it waits for violators to pass by. Once the violator is detected, the autonomous police car can pursue and connect with the alleged perpetrator as well as other vehicles in the area via V2V. The robo-cop-car would then use AI to decide whether to hand out a ticket or let you off with a warning.

The closest thing we have to automated traffic enforcement right now are red light cameras currently operating in at least one location in 24 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands (source: Governors Highway Safety Association). In addition to identifying drivers who run through a red light, the cameras can tag those who fail to come to a full and complete stop before turning right on red.

These cameras take photos of drivers who run red lights, and tickets are sent to the driver by mail. The system has generated controversy and has been challenged in court in some states, and as a result penalties generally are more lenient than those used with traditional enforcement; the fine may be lower and points may not be assessed to the driver’s license.

The overall goal, in Ford’s words, is to have the autonomous police car handle “routine police tasks, such as issuing tickets for speeding or failure to stop at a stop sign (that) can be automated, so that police officers can perform tasks that cannot be automated.”

One should remember than the majority of patent applications never get past the initial concept stage, so filing the patent does not necessarily mean we will see autonomous Ford-built police cars patrolling the streets in the near future. Still, it is worth noting that Ford does have a nice existing business selling law enforcement agencies its police interceptor sedans, SUVs, and even a new Ford Special Service Plug-in Hybrid Sedan based on its Fusion midsize sedan.

The first plug-in hybrid police vehicle from Ford is designed for police and fire chiefs and other government personnel whose jobs don’t require a pursuit-rated vehicle. It carries a 7.6-kWh battery, with a claimed 21-mile all-electric range, a top speed of 85 mph, and a 3.3-kilowatt onboard charger that allows agencies to fully charge the battery in just 2.5 hours on a 240-volt level-two charger. When the battery runs down, a 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder gasoline powerplant kicks in to produce a 500-plus mile range, according to Ford.

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