If a Los Angeles-area scientist has his way, car chases may become as antiquated as horse-mounted cavalry.
James Tatoian, chief executive of Eureka Aerospace in Pasadena, California, is developing a system that uses microwave energy to interfere with microchips inside cars. Once the chip is overloaded with excessive current, the car ceases to function, and will gradually decelerate on its own, he said.
"If you put approximately 10 or 15 kilovolts per meter on a target for a few seconds, you should be able to bring it to a halt," Tatoian said.
Most cars built in the United States since 1982 have some type of on-board microprocessor. Today, the processors are advanced enough to control functions such as fuel injection and GPS equipment.
Eureka Aerospace's High Power Electromagnetic System consists of a series of wires arranged in a 5-foot-by-4-foot rectangular array. The interference is emitted in a conical shape outward from the device.
Tatoian said that while he is not the first to come up with the idea of using electromagnetic interference to stop cars, he has been able to reduce the size and power consumption of such a device so that it would be much more portable.
It is small enough such that it could be mounted onto a helicopter, or onto a law enforcement pursuit vehicle -- an application that interests the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
Eureka Aerospace hopes to have a working prototype that the sheriff's department can test by late summer. The National Institute of Justice and the U.S. Marine Corps may also be potential early clients. The company's early tests indicate that the car-stopping device should be functional at a range of 300 feet.
Cmdr. Sid Heal, who evaluates technology for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, said that after seeing a preliminary demonstration of the device last year, he was very enthusiastic about its prospects.
"Everybody on the globe is interested in a technology like this," he said. "Every law enforcement agency and every military agency in the world will jump on this. I can say that with absolute confidence."
In current situations where police need to disable a car they are pursuing, sometimes the officers must resort to spike strips, which are designed to puncture the vehicle's tires. Heal said that with an electromagnetic interference system, a potentially dangerous outcome (such as loss of control from flat tires) could be avoided.
"The beautiful part of using the (microwave) energy is that it leaves the suspect in control of the car," he said. "He can steer, he can brake, he just can't accelerate."
Another benefit to such a technology, Heal said, is that it would give officers the ability to pinpoint where they want to stop a car -- on a freeway overpass, for instance -- which would limit a suspect's opportunities for escape.
"It's going to change law enforcement tactics," he said.
If the technology is able to prove worthy, it may also change the behavior of potential criminals. Heal said most people who lead police on car chases have never committed such an act before, and they might think twice if they recall the presence of such a device.
"You would automatically remember you can't get away," he said. "What I think we're going to get is compliance. That would be a breakthrough beyond anything of what anyone has provided in the past."