Driverless cars are so close to becoming a reality that just this past week, California published new draft rules that provide a clearer picture of how the driverless car industry will be regulated in the state.
Amongst the many proposed regulations that were drafted, which can be found on California’s DMV website here, is that driverless cars must comply with state and local driving laws. Companies which sell the driverless vehicles to customers must make software updates available to comply with changes in traffic laws.
While the proposed regulations apply primarily to the manufacturers of the driverless vehicles and not necessarily on the owner of the driverless vehicle, it remains unclear how driverless cars will affect another state law that does apply to the owner and, dare I say it, driver of the driverless vehicle; the California DUI.
As is, the California Vehicle Code’s DUI law makes it “unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage…[or] who has 0.08 percent or more…of alcohol in his or her blood to drive a vehicle.”
If driverless cars take to the streets of California in the next year, or possibly even months, the question becomes whether the word “drive” under California’s DUI law still applies. In other words, can a person still be charged, arrested, and convicted of a California DUI while using a driverless car?
At least one country says no.
Australia’s National Transport Comission (NTC) has released a report suggesting that applying drunk driving laws to driverless cars could discourage the use of driverless cars in general and when trying to get home safely after drinking:
Driving Drunk or on Drugs in a Driverless Car Should Be Legal, Expert Body Says
October 6, 2017, CNBC – People under the influence of drugs and alcohol should be able to use driverless cars without falling foul of the law, a regulatory body in Australia has suggested.
The National Transport Commission (NTC), an independent advisory body, said current laws could reduce the uptake of automated vehicles. One of those potential barriers could be any law that requires occupants of self-driving cars to comply with drink-driving laws.
"This would create a barrier to using a vehicle to safely drive home after drinking. Enabling people to use an automated vehicle to drive them home despite having consumed alcohol has the potential to improve road safety outcomes by reducing the incidence of drink-driving," the NTC said in a discussion paper released earlier this week.
"Legislative amendments could be made to exempt people who set a vehicle with high or full automation in motion from the drink- and drug-driving provisions."
The NTC does acknowledge a risk that could involve a person under the influence of drink or drugs choosing to take over the car. If that occurred, the body suggests that drink and drug driving offences would apply. But ultimately, a drunk person in a driverless car is similar to them being in a taxi, the NTC concludes.
"The application of an exemption is clear-cut for dedicated automated vehicles, which are not designed for a human driver. The occupants will always be passengers. The situation is analogous to a person instructing a taxi driver where to go," the paper said.
In many countries drugs are illegal and drink-driving laws differ between jurisdictions.
Australia has been pushing forward legislation to facilitate driverless cars over the past two years. In 2015, the first public self-driving car trials took place in South Australia, after laws were passed there to allow tests.
The NTC also recently released guidelines on driverless car tests across the entire country.
Analysts have forecast that automated vehicles could actually be a boon for the alcohol industry.
"Shared and autonomous vehicles could expand the total addressable market of alcoholic beverages while reducing the incidence of traffic fatalities and accidents," Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas saidin a report last month.
Governments across the world are looking into the implications that driverless cars will have on the law and the insurance industry.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Anything that helps prevent drunk driving, I’m in favor of. If a driverless car can get people home safely after a night of drinking, then why wouldn’t we use them? But to apply DUI laws to those using driverless cars defeats the purpose of DUI laws in the first place, namely to punish and deter drunk driving. In fact, it may actually discourage people from choosing this new method from traveling, as the NTC’s report suggests.