Last week, California Highway Patrol arrested a driver for DUI after he had fallen asleep in his Model S Tesla while it drove down Highway 101 in autopilot mode.
A CHP officer spotted a grey Tesla going about 70 miles per hour on Highway 101 near Redwood City. As the officer approached the vehicle, he also noticed that it appeared the driver of the Tesla was asleep behind the wheel. CHP then closed traffic on the highway and proceeded to slow the Tesla by pulling a patrol vehicle in front of it and slowing down, thus causing the Tesla to slow down.
The driver of the vehicle eventually awoke to the CHP stopping his vehicle. Once stopped, responding officers suspected that the driver was under the influence and had the driver perform field sobriety tests, which he allegedly failed.
“It’s great that we have this technology; however, we need to remind people that…even though this technology is available, they need to make sure they know they are responsible for maintaining control of the vehicle,” CHP spokesman Art Montiel said.
In January of this year, CHP arrested a driver who was found passed out behind the wheel of a Tesla on San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. According to CHP, the driver’s blood alcohol content was more that double the legal limit. The man claimed he wasn’t responsible because the vehicle was in autopilot.
While fully autonomous vehicles may be in the offing, no major car manufacturer has yet to develop a fully autonomous vehicle for public consumption. In fact, Tesla warns that its autopilot features are not fully autonomous. “Autopilot is intended for use only with a fully attentive driver,” a Tesla spokes person told the Washington Post earlier this year. Rather, auto pilot systems are designed to detect obstructions in the road and, if necessary, bring the vehicle to a halt if the driver does not respond in time.
In fact, a goal of Elon Musk is to have fully autonomous vehicles in the near future.
“We aimed for a very simple, clean design, because in the future – really, the future begins now – the cars will be increasingly autonomous,” Musk said in July of last year. “So, you won’t really need to look at an instrument panel all that often. You’ll be able to do whatever you want: You’ll be able to watch a movie, talk to friends, go to sleep.”
This, however, raises an interesting legal dilemma.
California law requires that a drunk driver be in physical control of the vehicle and must cause the vehicle to move in the slightest amount. Are drunk drivers who are in autopilot really in physical control of the vehicle and cause it to move if the car is in autopilot? At least right now, the answer is a likely yes.
Drivers still need to operate a vehicle in autopilot to a certain degree. As Tesla’s spokesperson pointed out, Tesla’s autopilot feature still requires a fully attentive vehicle to take control of the vehicle to engage in maneuvers that are not available in autopilot. Just because a vehicle has autopilot mode does not mean that it is autonomous.
The question will become even trickier when fully autonomous vehicles are introduced to the public. If a vehicle is fully autonomous, then there is no need for a driver to be in any kind of control of the vehicle. On the other hand, a driver (now a passenger of a fully autonomous vehicle) will still need to input coordinates and tell the vehicle where to go, which can raise the argument that the passenger is, in fact, in control of the vehicle.
You can see how this technology can raise interesting legal questions. I suppose we’ll just have to 1.) wait for fully autonomous vehicles, and 2.) see what the legislature and/or courts do to define what it means to be “in control” of a fully autonomous vehicle.
Until then, drinking and getting behind the wheel of a vehicle while in autopilot mode will still land you a DUI in California.