When an ordinary police stop becomes a dangerous high-speed car chase, a new kind of radio pulse gun might come in handy. The device aims to stop fleeing suspects by disabling their modern cars' electronics. At least that's what the maker of the device, a British company called E2V, claimed during a recent demonstration. The company is marketing the radio pulse gun as a non-lethal weapon for law enforcement and military customers, but the device is far from perfect: it won't do much to stop older vehicles—and it might even prove dangerous for the newest drive-by-wire cars.
The RF Safe-Stop device recently demonstrated its stopping power on a second-hand collection of cars and motorbikes, according to BBC News. E2V, one of several companies working on this technology, hasn't provided detailed specifications or costs for the device. It says the RF Safe-Stop works by transmitting a radio frequency pulse capable of disrupting modern car electronics and forcing the engine to stall. BBC also observed the pulse causing one car's dashboard warning lights and dials to behave "erratically," as well as affecting digital audio and video recording gadgets inside the car.
The radio pulse gun is far from a handheld device, weighing in at a hefty 350 kilograms. E2V says law enforcement vehicles could be equipped with RF Safe-Stop units, an idea that the company is currently testing, according to The Engineer magazine. The devices could also be fitted onto fixed installations, boats, or possibly even helicopters.
Operators simply need to press a red button when a fleeting target comes within range (50 meters) to trigger a five-second radio pulse burst. If the first pulse doesn't confuse the engine control unit (ECU), the operator can promptly discharge another burst.
The radio pulse device provides an alternative to traditional methods of stopping fleeing vehicles, such as laying down "tire shredder" strips or engaging in risky car-ramming maneuvers. But the RF Safe-Stop may also only work as intended on a select range of vehicles.
Older vehicles that don't use electronic control over their engines and other systems could likely shrug off a radio pulse, said Andy Wood, product manager for E2V, in a BBC News interview.
On the other hand, newer vehicles that have electronic braking and drive-by-wire steering could suffer potential catastrophe if a radio pulse scrambles the electronics—especially if they were driving fast when disabled. The results could lead to an out-of-control vehicle still rolling down the highway at high speed.
Still, law enforcement agencies and the military may be glad enough to have another "non-lethal" tool in their car-stopping arsenal. And, if they prove to be safe and effective, such devices could also be useful in a future filled with self-driving vehicles, in a situation when a robot car goes awry and needs to be stopped.
Photo: Ralf Hettler/Getty Images
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.