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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!


14 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.

  • This is a great blog on the awareness of drunk driving! The 12 Pack of Life project is trying to as well, put an end to drunk driving. Help us fight the number of drunk drivers on the road too! We are putting together 12 cds made up of 12 different bands from 12 different cities! These cds will help promote the dangers of drunk driving and how to end it while putting these artists on the map! Please join our fight! For more information please go to or visit our facebook page, Pack of Life!

  • Brian Duff

    I agree that the central flaw in this article is that it is using as justification a law, which can be struck out with a pen. Driverless cars with no steering wheels may, no, would have saved my cousin’s life a week ago. He was killed when a drunk driver hit his car which also had his daughter in it. She escaped with only minor injuries, but will be traumatized and fatherless. That law is a step backwards like so many on emerging technology. I felt that way when I read about the law in question, and I feel that way now. I’ve watched this area of technology with great interest the past few years. I now appreciate more.

  • Mike

    I’m sorry but this article is just dead wrong. Let’s assume cars will drive themselves in the next few years, don’t you think that the car will be able to tell if the computer was driving the car or the driver. MADD just face it, you will no longer be in existence when cars have the option to drive itself because an intoxicated driver will never drive manually. Read the writing on the wall MADD. This will mean the end of your lies and personal gain for making casual drinkers criminals in the eyes of the law. There is no doubt in my mind that this site is funded by the neo-prohibitions known as MADD.

    PS… Assuming that people that are intoxicated can’t add 5+7 is an absolute joke.


    • You are right. The car will know whether it or the driver was in charge. The point is that as long as a drunk person CAN be in charge, some drunk person will. Now, if you take the pedals and steering wheel out of the car, you can eliminate the human driver, and eliminate drunk driving. Check the piece I wrote on the Google Car. That’s the way to go, even if you and I can’t have one.

      I too hate the escalating laws. But you know why they keep making harsher laws? Because we still drive drunk and because we still drink together and let each other drive away.

      You are wrong about MADD. They don’t like me any more than you do! They do not fund DrinkingAndDriving.Org and the head of my local MADD chapter made it her job to let me know years ago that they do not approve of what I do. My focus is drunk driving prevention. I don’t discourage the drink, I discourage the drive. For this reason, I ‘condone’ drinking in their eyes.

      I don’t do victim impact panels and I don’t solicit donations from victims. I do not make money off of victims who have already suffered enough. I receive donations (mostly from designated driver services) amounting to a few hundred dollars a year. This effort really comes out of my wallet and my heart. If I were in it for the funding, I’d have pulled the plug years ago.

  • Ron

    Current laws do more social harm than good. Organizations such as this and MADD make money by pushing their agenda. How many lives are destroyed by draconian DUI laws than are saved by the distorted statistics for alcohol related fatalities. Do not be fooled people. It’s a business for these people and nothing more. I look forward to the day where the future makes their lively hood obsolete.

    • Actually, I agree with you! Laws will not rid us of this problem. Technology is the key. Read “The Future of Drunk Driving Prevention” Do you know why they keep piling newer, more INVASIVE laws on us? Because we STILL drink and drive. And we drink together and let each other drive away.

      There is a big difference between MADD and me. MADD wants to stop the drinking altogether! Then there’s the texting and other distractions and teenage alcoholism and binge drinking and all the rest. Meanwhile, they will not tell you HOW to wait after drinking before driving. They will not tell you that designated driver services exist and that you can hire somebody to drive you home in your own car. These are things which in the MADD world condone drinking and are therefore, dark secrets. They won’t go past “designate a driver.” So far as the money goes, MADD is indeed big business. But DrinkingAndDriving.Org is all about PREVENTION. And usually, nobody gives a buck about prevention. I would do more if I wasn’t working to fund this. See, when people stop driving drunk, I have nothing to lose but the expense of expanding this. And some of us will only stop driving drunk when our cars won’t let us anymore.

  • Jesse

    I really, really hate MADD and the anti drunk-driving movement in general. It’s the perfect mating of emotionally charged parents and families and the industrial complex of the makers of the devices, plus local governments seeing revenue, making an extreme law and swaying public policy.

    I got a DUI in 2010 for SLEEPING IT OFF IN MY CAR, in the parking lot right outside the pub i where I was drinking. This is a great example of overreach in law where a person that was excersizing good judgement is still penalized because there is fanatic extremism introduced into public policy.



    I truly despise the whole system involved in this because of what I had to go through. FYI I have NEVER caused an accident in over 20 years of driving. NOT EVEN A FENDER BENDER. I’ve also gotten maybe 3 tickets of any kind in that same period.

  • cedric

    well, it is STILL illegal to be in that car while intoxicated…you should have known better and gotten a drive with somebody!!! it’s the law and COMMON KNOWLEDGE!!! this has been the law since forever….

  • If the car drives itself what are the odds the drunk even gets pulled over? People would know it happens, as they do now, but would care much less as they are 99.9 percent safer. We will need fewer police and emergency responders as well…body shops etc.

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