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Why Autonomous Cars WON'T End Drunk Driving

Cars that can drive themselves appear to be on the horizon.  How will this impact drunk driving?  If the car is the driver, will we still be held unaccountable for anything that happens while we are passengers?

When we wrote about the future of drunk driving prevention, we intentionally left autonomous vehicles out of the discussion.  We spoke about a potential timeline for all vehicles everywhere to be equipped with ignition interlock, and we gave it about 50 years!  This will be possible only because ignition interlock can be Added to an existing vehicle.  To make mandatory ignition interlock a law and to get all future and every existing vehicle equipped will take decades.

OC Register pic from David Whiting article about sleeping in carsBut if your car can drive itself, you should be able to pour yourself into the seat and go.  Not so fast!  Let’s see what some of the manufacturers creating autonomous cars are up to …

This Wall Street Journal article from September 27, 2013 gives a good indication of the progress being made.  There are cars available today which can help you parallel park, stay in your lane, and even avoid some collisions.

It’s a smattering of autonomous features available at this point and you can’t get them all in the same car yet.  While the eventual goal of these manufacturers is to produce a totally autonomous vehicle, Google has gotten a lot of attention with their efforts to jump as far ahead as current technology permits.  But thinking that far ahead inspires other concepts.  Here is a good write up about intelligent cars being driven on intelligent roads.

Futurists and technologists are not the only ones inspired by these new inventions.  Lawmakers too are watching these advances closely.  They have to.  They are being asked to allow driverless cars on the roads.  So far, they are only ‘street legal’ for testing in California, Florida, and Nevada.

Which brings us back to drunk driving … If the car is doing the driving, we’re good, right?  WRONG!  If you take a look at California’s act to add autonomous cars to the vehicle code, you will see that they come right out of the gate stating these vehicles will be operated “by a driver who possesses the proper class of license for the type of vehicle being operated if specified requirements are met, including that the driver be seated in the driver’s seat, monitoring the safe operation of the autonomous vehicle, and capable of taking over immediate manual control of the autonomous vehicle in the event of an autonomous technology failure or other emergency.

So the driver will be able to take control of the vehicle.  The implications are clear – a drunk person could still wreak havoc with an otherwise autonomous vehicle!  Now step back into the present and think about what happens if you get drunk and try to sleep it off in your car.  You’re in the back seat and your keys are in your pocket.  A flashlight taps on the window and the next thing you know, you’ve been arrested for DUI.  Because you were in the car and could take control of the vehicle, you may be charged as though you had.  Yes, people get arrested this way although people caught sleeping in their cars usually have them in gear!

Jump back into the future and it is obvious that your cybercar will require what we expect all cars will one day require, ignition interlock.  Sober drivers only!

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4 comments to Why Autonomous Cars WON’T End Drunk Driving

  • Robert

    Yes, you are correct on all of your points of the law. That is what the law currently requires and will be for some time.

    The question is if at some point in the future autonomous cars make crashes due to drunk driving a thing of the past. Meaning, after a few years of no crashes due to drunk driving, wouldn’t the public perception of it as a social evil and stigma wane? I believe it would as it should. It simply wouldn’t exist.

    Then with our new found freedom and safety wouldn’t we all want to be able to go to a bar and have a few beers without having risking other peoples lives and our own to get home? Yes, if we can do it safely.

    I believe things things will happen regardless of fear mongering.

  • I agree with Robert above me. Sure, at the current level of technology, what this article says is true.

    But come 20, 50 years? Decades ago texting, email and cyber bullying was impossible.

    Ok, might have shot myself in the foot with that one. But my point is, this technology won’t end DUIs in the near future, but nobody knows for sure later on.

  • Ignition interlock devices? I’m sure every new model will be hacked within minutes of their release. Just like phones, and ALL SOFTWARE are today. Some software even has the anti-piracy removed and is released on the internet (free of charge) BEFORE it is released publicly!

    I am sure that automated cars will advance to the point that requiring a licensed (or sober, or even conscious) driver/passenger will no longer be required. That day is probably closer than many think. I’d say within 30 years we will have TRUE automated vehicles.

  • AnoXmous

    Except self driving cars 5-15 years in the future won’t have steering wheels, gas pedals, or any other means of manual control of the car. They wouldn’t need them. Getting a DUI for being in a situation where you might potentially take control of the vehicle, sure, but if you physically cannot, there’s no reason for such a law.

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