With self-driving cars finally making the transition from science fiction into modern-day reality, they present all sorts of practical and ethical conundrums that must be taken into consideration. One of the most pressing matters at hand (and one of the more contentious) is whether or not you can (or should) get a DUI while in a self-driving car.
After all, if the person who is under the influence of alcohol is (technically) not operating the car, where does the law sit with this? Is it a grey area, or is there a clear distinction in the law that prohibits this action? Let’s find out.
How does the Law define a DUI?
DUI is an acronym that stands for “driving under the influence.” It is illegal in any state in the US for a driver to operate a vehicle when under the influence of alcohol or other substances, including prescription medications and recreational drugs. To put it another way, driving a car while under the influence of mind-altering substances is strictly prohibited.
However, you are allowed low levels of alcohol within your system while operating a vehicle. As federal law states, this limit is a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08%. Although, there are also varying state laws to take into account, as well as differing levels of BAC tolerance depending on the driver’s age.
In general, the law defines a DUI as when somebody is intoxicated to a level that renders the driver incapable of operating a motor vehicle safely.
Levels of car autonomy
It’s estimated that we will have over 8 million autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles on the road by 2025 according to research reports. Although, that doesn’t mean that all the cars will be driving themselves. At the time of writing, there are six different levels of car autonomy that can be categorized into the following:
- Level 1 – No automation (manually controlled)
- Level 2 – Driver assistance (steering and accelerating guidance and cruise control)
- Level 3 – Partial driving automation (advanced driver assistance systems). The vehicle can control both steering and acceleration/decelerating, however, the driver remains in the driver’s seat and can take over the controls.
- Level 4 – Conditional driving automation – The vehicle is capable of detecting its environment and can perform most driving tasks autonomously. However, human override is still required.
- Level 5 – High driving automation – The vehicle performs all tasks under a specific set of circumstances. These cars do not require human interaction, but they can still intervene if they wish. However, due to legislation, these cars can only operate in a certain area.
- Level 6 – Full driving automation – The vehicle performs all of the tasks and no human interaction is required.
Can you be charged with a DUI in a self-driving car?
The thing is, the charge will only stick if a DUI lawyer can prove that the driver was in control of the vehicle while they were under the influence, even if the vehicle is autonomous. Of course, this is a tricky case, and they are bound to be plenty of contentious lawsuits in the future.
Companies like Tesla, on the other hand, make it clear that auto-pilot is meant to assist the driver rather than replace it. As a result, since the driver is solely responsible for driving the vehicle, operating these vehicles when under the influence of drugs or alcohol is illegal.
It seems at this moment in time we are still sailing in uncharted waters when it comes to whether or not you should get a DUI in a self-driving car. The problem is that technology is continually advancing at a rapid rate, yet the laws we are governed by often remain rigid and unchanging.
This creates an untenable situation, and ultimately, something will have to give. For the time being, it’s up to the prosecutor to show proof that the operator of the vehicle had “actual physical control,” and not the vehicle’s computer system. In general, this refers to the control of the key driving elements, including steering, navigating, accelerating, decelerating, and stopping.
Currently, there are no laws that make a distinction between the different levels of car autonomy, and this is somewhere where we will likely see some sort of line drawn by the lawmakers, once they finally get around to it.