The history of the city I call home is steeped in a tradition of transportation. Terminus, as it was originally named, came about as the junction of numerous railroad lines. Decades later, Mayor William Hartsfield continued that tradition by securing congressional funds to make Atlanta’s airport a key stop in the federal air mail route. This legacy continues today. Atlanta is a key hub of logistics and transportation with access to railways, highways, and skyways. Those attributes have made the city attractive to businesses that need to move their goods in and around the region as quickly as possible. So while places like San Francisco, Phoenix, and Pittsburgh have been ground zero for autonomous vehicle testing, deployment of that technology will have its biggest impacts on cities like Atlanta.
The ease of mobility (traffic jams notwithstanding) has been a boon to illicit businesses as well. The drug trafficking industry in Atlanta saw such success it even birthed a wildly popular musical sub-genre in Trap Music that chronicles its effects and the exploits of those involved. While that industry has seen some level of legalization and commoditization elsewhere in recent years, the other aspect of trafficking in the city remains of great and growing concern. Some estimates put the sex trafficking market as a $290 million operation in Atlanta alone. That figure climbs to $32 billion when accounting for global human trafficking.
Given the sad reality of the city where I reside, I have given much thought to how autonomous vehicles will impact trafficking operations. Self Driving Vehicle technology is barreling toward reality, and with it a myriad of opportunity. Mobility for the disabled and poor. Convenient deliveries for all. Safer streets. But nefarious opportunities are also along for the ride. Trafficking of illegal materials and people is seemingly made easier by the technology.
The hands-off nature of autonomous vehicles remove or reduce the few touch point available to engage with potential victims of trafficking. The vehicles will be programmed to obey every traffic law and stop only at destination pre-approved by criminal operators. Removing the driver from the equation offers drug traffickers another layer of distance from authorities and added control as a programmed vehicle has no reason to deviate for snack breaks or changes of heart regarding the work.
Researchers in the hospitality industry already predict that self-driving cars will be used for sex. The enhanced mobility that AVs bring to human trafficking provide added layers of complexity for investigating crimes and ending their operations. So how can cities and advocacy groups embrace autonomous vehicles while limiting their ability to be used for harm?
While the loopholes for criminal activity are concerning, autonomous vehicle technology also presents opportunity to crack down on such activity. The prospect of highways packed with self-driving vehicles calls for legislation and regulators to keep things in order. Roles like the Highway Controller role from our 21 Jobs of the Future report can play a key role in protecting motorists and those potentially at risk to be exploited. Operating like an air traffic controller, these people will ensure commercial vehicles have been loaded with the freight they claim to carry and that they travel the appropriate route. This level of oversight can at least hinder the use of commercial vehicles for nefarious purposes. Access to the myriad of sensors that will outfit these vehicles presents ethical surveillance challenges, but also allows authorities to put eyes on any potential improprieties.
The trove of data created by the sensors on autonomous vehicles is expected to exceed 1 terabyte per day. That presents opportunity to track and dismantle trafficking operations but calls for a specific role and skillset not usually available at police precincts. The Data Detective (also mentioned in our 21 Jobs of the Future report) will partner with Highway Controllers to assess vehicle data and seek patterns that indicate criminal activity. This role will work to analyze the terabytes of data produced by autonomous vehicles while leveraging other intel and trafficking related behaviors to glean insights on how to curb that activity. Every interaction with a digital or connected device generates some sort of digital trail or code halo for experts to analyze, monetize, and (in the case of trafficking) weaponize against suspects.
Shared autonomous vehicles, the likes of which ride-hailing services are fervently working to introduce, will likely be fitted with internal sensors to ward off illegal or undesirable behavior inside the vehicle. The greater challenge to this new reality is in the use of such tracking tools for personal vehicles. While safety is important to all motorists, few would agree to turning over privacy in their own vehicles in order to get it. That tension creates a void in which traffickers can operate.
Enforcement agencies usually lag behind their criminal counterparts in innovation and technology use. The shifting paradigm of mobility due to autonomous vehicles provides an opportunity to close that gap before it grows. By partnering with advocacy groups, AV designers and manufacturers can learn to approach their creations with safeguards to prevent or reduce unlawful use. Similar to the internal latch of most car trunks, safety measures can be put into place in self-driving cars that grant new levels of safety for vulnerable victims. Given the spike in trafficking activities at massive events like the Super Bowl or Consumer Electronics show, it would seem that the organizers and corporate participants behind those events have a moral mandate to aid in resolving those issues as best they can.
The US Department of Transportation has developed a safety checklist for autonomous vehicles but it lacks any references to verifying the well-being of passengers or legality of passengers or goods being transported. Ethical discourse surrounding autonomous vehicles usually starts and ends with the “trolley dilemma” of which people the vehicles should spare in emergency situations. The case of trafficking shows that there is just as much ground to cover on the ethics of protecting the people inside the vehicles as well.