High speed Police pursuits: Technology needs to step in to save lives

I just read an article in my local newspaper about the 11,506 lives lost from 1979 to 2013 as a result of high speed pursuit of cars trying to evade police—half of these deaths were bystanders or passengers in those cars being chased. The fact that most of these are initially police stops for minor infractions or traffic violations is inconsequential—you don’t run from police—it is usually a sign that there is something more afoot.

Police departments around the country have advanced in many technologies over the last 15 years, but pursuit-termination devices have not kept up with those advances. A Houston police officer recently used tire spikes to stop a vehicle running from police and was killed when the car swerved to avoid the spikes. An FBI bulletin in 2012 stated that 26 police officers were killed when deploying spikes since 1996 and they suggested police “weigh other options”.

Helicopters are another possibility, but by the time a helicopter warms up and gets into the air, the suspect vehicle is usually gone. Not that many police departments have helicopters, another strain on tight budgets. The US Justice Dept. put out a report that only 201 of the country’s 941 largest police departments have helicopters and there are about 18,000 police departments in the US.

There is one newer system being deployed called StarChase which shoots a small adhesive GPS device out of the front grille of the pursuing police vehicle but at a cost of $5,000 per vehicle and only with a 60% hit rate—not a device to put on every police car in the fleet if you have a tight budget. You still have to chase a car to get close enough to fire the GPS tracker, but the high speed pursuit can be cut short one the tracker adheres to the car.

The products that make StarChase function

The products that make StarChase function

Another idea was a device that could fire microwaves at the fleeing vehicle that would confuse the automobile’s electrical system and cause the engine to shut down. This could work from 60 feet away. But what about other cars and people nearby? Apparently the system may need to be improved.

There has to be a lower cost way to do this with our amazing electronics technology today. In my mind, a far cheaper, but viable solution could be drones. While not foolproof or ideal for chasing a vehicle, they can probably track the vehicle via camera using remote control by a police officer in his squad car. This could be a far lower cost solution for police departments with tight budgets.

What ideas can you suggest?

28 comments on “High speed Police pursuits: Technology needs to step in to save lives

  1. Neil.Albaugh
    August 12, 2015

    125 grain FMJ

  2. Steve Taranovich
    August 12, 2015

    Hi Neil,

    That's one option, but a bit drastic. 🙂 Let's try a drone first. 

  3. Koda23
    August 12, 2015

    A drone would probably have to be operated by a partner officer in the passenger seat of the police car, unless it could be operated from a fixed location. I doubt that a solo officer in a pursuit could safely operate both his vehicle and a drone at the same time.

    Many departments in my area (Silicon Valley) are terminating pursuits sooner when public safety is in jeopardy, since often times a license plate and driver description can be used to develop a suspect if they are not already identified.

  4. Steve Taranovich
    August 12, 2015

    @Koda23—I was thinking more of stopping the police car and launching a drone (stored in the trunk) with a camera to chase the vehicle

  5. Teno
    August 12, 2015

    A solution that has a much lower probablility of causing an accident isn't straight forward and factors such as being in a crowded urban environment or sparse urban setting would make the technology of choice vary widely. The ones mentioned in this story all have safety issues and none work in all environments. The GPS tracker can miss te target vehicle and hit a bystander. The RF version mentioned several drawbacks and navigating a drone from a speeding police car would be nearly impossible. I was thinking directed EMP but that would disable more than just the vehicle being persued and wreak havoc in the general area. Anything disabling the vehicle can have extreme consequences so I think any such technology should be avoided. The best solution would be to allow the police to track a vehicle and wait until it stops and then move in for the arrest.

    In rural settings a system of strategically placed real time cameras would be the best solution (the assumption being traffic cameras are not real-time already). The biggest technical issue is bandwidth but all the cameras do not need to stream live data at all times. A moving vidoe grid within a few blocks of the persuant police car could track the action until the suspect vehicle stops at which time the police close in and make the arrest. The technoology can even be extended to a foot chase where they get video feed on handheld devices.  The system does not have to have 100% coverage and some perps might slip through but it would not jeopordize citizens with wreckless chases or vehicle disabling technologies while still being fairly effective. Thanks to cell phones, the cost of high quality cameras has been driven down. The system could also piggyback on cell phone networks because, as I've described, it doesn't require a lot of bandwidth. Better still, the system could warn people via their cell phones that there is a dangerous situation heading their way and notify them once the danger has passed. If the perpetrators have cell phones in their cars it might be possible, once a positive identification of the vehicle has been made, to use the perps cell phone to track them. 

    Such a system would have other social benefits. When a 911 call is made the nearby cameras can start rolling. It would also be a deterant to police from making illegal surch and seisures and innocent suspects can be rapidly dismissed (especially valuable when an officer is certain a person is guilty and focuses an investigation on the wrong person). The liklihood of getting caught within moments of committing a crime and having sufficient evidence for a conviction can be a strong deterrant to committing crimes and thereby reduce crime in areas where these systems are used. If commercial cell phone networks are used, who knows, cell phone coverage might improve as the cell companies compete for lucrative, large scale, civil contracts that specify quality of coverage. 

    In rural areas an UAV would be a good choice. It would have to have crash avoidance systems while still being able to attach itself to the car being persued in case the chase is a long one and battery life of the UAV becomes an issue. Or how about a device in the police car that uses cell phone signals to ping for suspect cell phones These would have limited range and can be directional to assure no false IDs are made. If the suspect comes into an area with good cell coverage then the suspect can be tracked. 

    The Orwellian implications of any of these technologies are the most worrysome. The government (or hackers for that matter) should not be in the business of spying on its citizens in their routine activities. Using cell phone networks for the system would discourage illegal government activities while keeping the system costs down. To prevent abuse the police would have to prove use of the surveillance technology was warranted. If the police are caught illegally spying then those involved should be prosecuted just like any other criminal. Committing one crime to prevent another is no justification for committing crimes. The best system protects law-abiding citizens while helping police safely apprehend criminals. 



  6. Steve Taranovich
    August 12, 2015

    All excellent points and suggestions @Teno—-thanks! We definitely do not want “Big Brother” watching our every move.

  7. BillWM
    August 13, 2015

    Police Helicopters have been helping allow the pursuers to back off for over 40 years

    Often equiped with items like FLIR, Radio's, Searchlights etc — 

    and a pilot and observer that can help call the shots from the air



  8. Steve Taranovich
    August 13, 2015

    I agree William, but in today's tight budget-constrained police departments—they just can't afford helicopter costs. It is actually the ideal pursuit solution though.

  9. BillWM
    August 13, 2015

    On the drones — it is looking like the FAA is going to require a licensed pilot to operate them — possibly so that there is more awareness of things like airports — greatly adding to the cost of commercial drones putting them more in line with the cost of low end helicopters for cost/hr to operate

  10. Rama Murthy
    August 13, 2015

    Steve,Many years ago, I remember to have read about a small “toy car” which could be deployed from Police chasing vehicle, which would get underneath the chased vehicle and start firing EMPs which would stall the chased vehicle, as the ECU is supposed to do that under jammed condition(actually it is not supposed to receive any new commands but either hold on to the last command or go to a safe mode, which should be slowly ramping down the speed?”). Now a drone may be a more convenient one than such a 'jet toy car' and it can do two things.

         Apart from the jamming EMP, it can also transmit command codes (of all car ECUs in rapid sequence as police by law can get all of them and modulate)corresponding to the stoppage of the vehicle or some such most appropriate action. This can also be so arranged as to render it somewhat safe for the other vehicles. But sensing all this happening, the thief may want to pull to a side and get away, and the other command code paralelly to be transmitted should be 'door close' one.

        Can future ECUs be programmed “by appropriate state law” to transmit their ID continuously and accept some select commands and respond cautioning the driver first and for enough time.Every traffic junction will be equipped to receive and acknowledge somewhat like a cell phone or an internet IP address? If this can be done with cosumer's acceptance, it may be possible within city.Afterall police are trying to secure it for our own good and all citizens are law abiding.Why should anyone refuse this? This will do away with any outside paraphernalia and present cell towers can be used?

  11. Steve Taranovich
    August 14, 2015

    Hi Rama,

    Now that solution, to me, would be the best functionally aa well as financially. Maybe as we approach 5G in 2020 this can become a reality since base stations will consist of heterogenous devices from pico-cells to macro-base stations spread out just about everywhere.


    And don't forget that 5G will have electronically steerable antennas that can focus pretty accurately. That will also help with this type of solution which you suggest with a drone and EMP capability.

    Excellent input!

  12. Steve Taranovich
    August 14, 2015

    Good point William, but as we progress into the US government opening the airspace for commercial drones, I expect flight training for drone operators to come down significantly. This would especially be true in the case of training an entire police patrol force as a group. The helicopter fuel and pilot alone have to be a huge cost aside from even a low-cost helicopter. Maybe if might be better to deploy an ultra-light aircraft or ultimately as solar-powered/glider-shaped option?

  13. maheshgupta01
    August 14, 2015

    good post good one

  14. BillWM
    August 14, 2015

    One also has to look at the speed requirements — most of the tollways in the large city near me are 75-80mph speed limit — a speed difficult for most low end drones to attain, let alone that of a vehicle driven with the intent to outrun law enforcement.


    Perhaps a better solution is to have the cell towers all look for high doppler signals and use any cell phones in the problem vehicle then to track the vehicle.

  15. BillWM
    August 14, 2015

    Most of the military drone operators are spending over 1 year in training — this is for something capable of live video, and > 100 mph ground speed, stay up for > 1hr and operating in a shared airspace  — generally requiring a small airfield for operation


    Most of the inexpensive hobby drones in the class of model planes are doing good to hit 30mph! and to stay up for 10 min.

  16. antedeluvian
    August 14, 2015

    The is a concept where a police car can harpoon a fleeing speeder

    It seems that the concept was also tried in LA, but the google links end up without details.

  17. Steve Taranovich
    August 14, 2015

    @BillWM—Good points—any other thoughts?

  18. Steve Taranovich
    August 14, 2015

    @antedeluvian—Not a bad technique, but might be too risky to bystanders and other vehicles in the area

  19. BillWM
    August 14, 2015

    The real kicker is being able to haul a high res and even IR camera around at >100mph for more than 1 hr, and communicate over a Metropolitan sized land area  — One rapidly starts approaching a light plane or small low end helicopter in cost to get something that will hang in with a 100mph+ ground chase — then there is the very real need to already be airborne, implying a multi vehicle fleet to be effective.


    I really find it amazing that part of the wireless base station 911 code does not take the doppler info and use it to determine if the user is grossly over posted limits and activate the GPS for a more accurate indication and location as well as ping this on the 911 operators console.

  20. eafpres
    August 16, 2015

    Hi Rama–do we have evidence that an EMP produced by a small, portable device could disrupt a car?  Last time I looked the ECU, TCU, etc. were all in die-cast metal sealed boxes.  The pulse would only couple to the wires.  The question is that after the pulse, which cannot last very long (hence, “pulse”), would the vehicle just reset as it is dessigned to do and carry on?

  21. eafpres
    August 16, 2015

    There are many possible ways short of a high speed chase.  Compared to the pricey system noted, given the level of ingenuity today, some startup could adapt a simple phone to fit into a cylindrical projectile that could be fired from a police shotgun.  This thing could (a) pentrate the rear trunk of the vehicle, or (b) be designed to “stick”.  Worst case then you have $500 per shot, and you already have the shotgun.  Now the tracking device could be, well, another phone.  Lets say $300 up front an a monthly plan of $100.

    So, maybe w should put these ideas on Kickstarter or some other crowdfunding sites.  Right after we file the patents.

  22. Steve Taranovich
    August 16, 2015

    @eafpres1—Great advice! I like using and modifying existing technology to solve probles like this as well as fresh new ideas and solutions. NASA, with its budget constraints is now using much of tried-and-true technology that exists. Orion uses Boeing 787 computers as well as their “glass cockpit” See my articles from my NASA visit to meet the Orion team at Johnson Space Center Houston on EDN

  23. Artfldgr
    August 16, 2015

    the emp thing you describe exists and you can see a video of it working. however, the chances of other issues makes it a bit problematical. though its possible to create a special device one can add to a gun that would make an emp over short range.

    its actually possible to make a better cheaper device than i see above, as the issue with such things is how do you et them to “stick”. if you look at such, you see that what they are trying to do is get a hard device to stick to a hard surface, which is why its success rate is so low. 

    a better design would be akin to a fish net hanky with magnets on four corners and a transmitter in the center, with some paper wad separators… such a thing could fit into a standard shot gun shell… the net would reduce drag, the wads would keep the magnets separated, the fact there are four of them and the surface is flexible and low weight, would allow the item to stick easy compared to a hard shell device. the device only needs a small transmitter…

    also, its VERY easy to make a device that hangs from the bottom of a drone, so that a drone only has to come within a foot or so, with the device catching magnetically, which then separates from the drone. such a device would have tracking, but would also have radio relay and piezo elements. this then can be used to conduct sound into the vehicle. this allows for people to speak loudly into the car and unless they can find and detach it, cant be turned off.

    even easier is something akin to paint filled water balloons… these can easily be on a string, and stretched across the road… kind of like a string of lanterns on a line. when the car windsheild strikes them, they shatter and cover the windsheild with paint that does not come off with the wipers. you cant drive if you cant see and are forced to stop.

    but ultimately the cheapest would be the shotgun shell version tracker with a net, or just a few long strings (think mini bolo). this is very cheap, given you could make one as a prototype for a few dollars using off the shelf parts…


  24. Rama Murthy
    August 17, 2015

    Hi eafpres1, As I said earlier, I have read about this EMP vulnerability in a US Electronics magazine many years(about 23 or 25) ago and as usual, the actual test results were not mentioned. I do not remember the source but that was some FBI or FCC report and in those days only printed reports were present(no internet and hence no searchable docs.).You are right about the fact that once inside shielded metal boxes, the cables (though with filters and transient protectors) will degrade the shielding effectiveness of the box (which in itself may not go beyond a certain value due to cost reasons) to some extent. The amount of filtering also is limited as otherwise connector cost and PWB cost would go up. If the radiated pulse is sufficiently high, it may lead to some coupling to the internal circuitry and may upset or damage.

                   Sometimes the effects of EMP were overrated but we do know the near field effects of mobile phone/walkie talkie RF field and EFT/ESD on electronic circuits. Electronics is vulnerable to EMI. Your question of whether watch dog recovery is going to be graceful or not, say while the vehicle is in CRUISE mode, I am not really aware. Most EMI immunity standards allow some degradation during testing. However in case of an ECU, I am not aware of the norms whether the software engineer can really anticipate all the operational conditions and malfunction conditions and write a robust recovery code with fast enough reboot time to cover up any jump in all parameters controlled(say a sudden change in speed).

                However it should be possible to find this out by just testing an ECU at say 200V/m or a little higher field until it fails and see how it fails while a DAS monitors the vehicle parameters, with the vehicle running on a passive freewheeling belt. Automobile companies may already be doing this, but none may be open enough to publish their vulnerabilities I guess as all are curious. 

                Defence has some of the best methods like IFF.Hence I suggested this by packaging a GSM modem with ECU so that atleast the vehicle can be located within a cell tower using no extra infrastructure. Now ECU seals should be secured like those of electricity meters and any attempts to shield the entire ECU so as to disable the tower communication can be identified. No frills methods are probably good to start with. Drone is interesting control problem in itself, but in this case,may not be a best solution as static methods have to be attempted first.

                 As an interesting aside point, we already have attempts done by many to erase electricity meters internal register data by pumping RF or ESD.Some ignition based gadgets(even battery gas igniters are suitable) are marketed for this. While ECU may have filters to prevent coupling, a meter does not have any and only its smart software to detect tampering and store status for later retrieval.


  25. eafpres
    August 17, 2015

    Hi Rama:

    Here is a page regarding an EMP product designed by a UK company.  Note it is truck sized.  Interestingly the EMP device shown in the movie Ocean's 11 was about this size; perhaps they got the idea from the movie (or vice versa)!

    w w w . e 2 v . c o m / m a r k e t s / s e c u r i t y – r e s c u e / r f – s a f e – s t o p t m /

    I spaced out the letters to get around UBM security; if the ink is gone just look up e2v dot com and the product is rf safe stop.

    I note also that there is no eviddence they are selling any.

    In the US, the FCC has jurisdiction and would be unlikely to allow such a device to be operated legally.  But anyway, it is so large you would lose the chase anyway.

    They say it operates in 2 to 4 GHz bands among others.  In that band are included strong excitation of water vibration (as in microwave oven) which could be permanently harmful to humans at high enough power.

  26. Rama Murthy
    August 17, 2015

    Hi Eafpres1,

                   Thanks for some real,myth busting inputs. Way back,during cold war days, the EMP story had another acompanying story which said that of all,only MIGs were immune to EMP as they had miniature vacuum tube based systems.This news followed the news of a MIG pilot landing secretly in Japan and some experts studying it. I also have seen a surge of papers on another subject called UWB.Now no one talks about UWB. Dr Henry Lai's,Dr Levin's and many Soviet expert's studies show that continuous exposure to low power RF is equally dangerous as short term exposure to high power RF.These scientists are finding it difficult to bring out the truth as big RF business companies are thwarting their attempts by generating funded research countering these facts. The reason for biological cell susceptibility stems from the fact that low field strengths it appears dictate the state of the cell and mightocondria get them generated.RF affects these fields.

                   Do you have any facts about UWB? The reason why I am raising this here is because UWB laid claims to be similar to EMP.May be Steve's pursuit problem may find an answer in UWB technology.

  27. eafpres
    August 19, 2015

    Hi Rama–I was for a long time in the antenna business; including mobile devices and mobile phones.   The only causative relationshp between the energe emitted from most mobile devices and humans is the heating of water molecules.  SAR testing (Specific Absorption Rate) is a method to test this.

    I do not think there is much to worry about.  4G phones are said to be limted to 0.2 Watts.  I looked up microwave oven leakage data and some old ones are found to emit 6 Watts at frequences that maximize interation with water, which means you.

    So go tape foil over the front of your microwave oven and  you will have done much more to reduce your exposure risk than to worry about UWB.

  28. Steve Taranovich
    August 19, 2015

    A member of the StarChase team has responded with the following:


    As a member of the StarChase team I would like to offer several potential points about solutions to police pursuits:


    • Non-pursuit polices, in which police do not chase vehicles unless as a result of violent criminal activity, often boost the frequency of crimes in a given area.
    • StarChase's GPS technology, which maps a suspect's vehicle over a Google maps interface, acts as a 'virtual helicopter' for police — and does for a fraction of the cost of maintaining a helicopter fleet
    • StarChase is currently being used by over two dozen departments around the country, with zero fatalities and a 100% suspect vehicle reclamation rate.
    • No department currently using StarChase has failed to renew their commitment to StarChase year over year — and many departments are increasing their StarChase capabilities due to success.

    While StarChase is certainly not appropriate for every police vehicle in the country, it is nevertheless the most sophisticated and effective solution for many agencies.

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