Why The FBI Fears Self-Driving Cars Could Be 'Lethal Weapons'

Who's afraid of the adorable, panda-looking self-driving car from Google and its autonomous friends? The nation's top law enforcement agency, apparently. But they see the upside to them too.

In a report obtained by the UK's Guardian newspaper via an open records request, the FBI predicts autonomous cars will have a "transformative" effect on police chases, both for law enforcement and for criminals. They could, hypothetically, free up suspects' hands to shoot at officers while their cars handle the actual driving during pursuits.

Obviously, the report assumes lawbreakers will be able to override a self-driving car's software and safety systems, a kind of nightmare scenario that the companies behind them don't really like to talk about.

The report, written by agents in the Strategic Issues Group within the FBI's Directorate of Intelligence, says, "Autonomy … will make mobility more efficient, but will also open up greater possibilities for dual-use applications and ways for a car to be more of a potential lethal weapon that it is today."

This presumably reflects fears that criminals might override safety features to ignore traffic lights and speed limits, or that terrorists might program explosive-packed cars to become self-driving bombs.

Emphasis mine. As the Guardian notes, this FBI report directly contradicts what technology companies like Google and automakers have said of self-driving cars: that they have the potential to be even safer than vehicles operated by humans.

It's worth taking all of this with a grain of salt, though. These intelligence reports often assume the worst-case scenario about everything, and it may be too early in the development of autonomous cars to assume they can be used as the ultimate getaway vehicle. The feds just think the potential is there.

But the FBI also sees the upside to these cars, including reducing the high number of traffic crashes that first responders get involved in. There's also this tidbit that's good news for investigators and maybe bad news for the rest of us:

The FBI also claims that tailing suspects will be much simpler with the next generation of robot cars. "Surveillance will be made more effective and easier, with less of a chance that a patrol car will lose sight of a target vehicle," says the report.

"In addition, algorithms can control the distance that the patrol car is behind the target to avoid detection or intentionally have a patrol car make opposite turns at intersections, yet successfully meet up at later points with the target."

That's really great, you know? Because it's just too hard for our government to surveil us with technology already, and something should definitely be done to make that easier for them.