Driverless Cars and the Fourth Amendment

In 1925, the Supreme Court first articulated the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement in Carroll v. United States. This exception allows law enforcement officials to search vehicles without a warrant if they have probable cause. Sixty years later, in California v. Carney, the Court held that this exception also applies to motor homes, effectively broadening the “automobile exception” to any vehicle. The Court’s reasoning boiled down to one sentence:

In short, the pervasive schemes of regulation, which necessarily lead to reduced expectations of privacy, and the exigencies attendant to ready mobility justify searches without prior recourse to the authority of a magistrate so long as the overriding standard of probable cause is met.

In other words, an individual’s expectation of privacy naturally and partly decreases in vehicles because they are subject to extensive government oversight. Why? Because cars are dangerous!

But what if cars were not dangerous? Enter Google’s Driverless Car. According to some estimates, the Driverless Car could reduce accidents up to 90%, which translates to 4.95 million fewer accidents, 30,000 fewer deaths, 2 million fewer injuries, and $400 billion in accident-related cost savings. See Chunka Mui’s article in Forbes, “Google’s Trillion-Dollar Driverless Car — Part 2: The Ripple Effects.”

Less accidents leads to less risk, which, in turn, may lead to less vehicular regulation. If, someday in the future, [driverless] cars are less regulated, perhaps individuals’ expectation of privacy in their cars will increase. In other words (and as crazy as it sounds), Driverless Cars may require a new formulation of the “automobile exception” to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement.

Pat Ellis

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2 thoughts on “Driverless Cars and the Fourth Amendment

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