We enjoy alcohol. Well, most of us do anyway. According to 2014 statistics from the National Institutes of Health, more than 56% of Americans age 18 or older reported consuming at least one drink per month. And although we imbibe, in actuality the vast majority of us consume relatively little alcohol.
Perhaps we drink because we like the taste of a fine whiskey or a well-made cocktail. Alternatively, we may enjoy the social aspect of drinking or the feeling of relaxation that comes from a drink. But that last bit – the relaxation – can be a problem. For the relaxation we feel is the effect of the alcohol on our bodies. A little bit of relaxation may not be of concern. But keep pouring that relaxation down your throat and you’ll quickly be impaired. This, of course, is why we have DUI-type laws on the books of all fifty states; we don’t want individuals operating vehicles on the public roadway while impaired.
To that end, we spend millions of dollars in public funds every year trying to convince the drinking public to stay out of the driver’s seat while impaired. And of course a significant amount of those funds are raised through taxes on the very stuff that can get you impaired. A bit of a paradox isn’t it? If only there were a way to reduce the incidence of drinking and driving without having to resort to these expensive campaigns.
Enter the autonomous car.
The advent of driverless cars has been touted as a game changer in many respects. So can using a driverless car keep you from getting in trouble if you overindulge? Probably not – at least not yet.
First, we need to consider current laws related to drinking and driving. Here in Washington we have a traditional law (RCW 46.61.502) which makes it an offense to “drive a vehicle” while under the influence (of intoxicating liquor, marijuana or any drug) or to have driven a vehicle within the two hours prior to testing above certain legal limits for blood alcohol content or THC concentration. By instructing your driverless car to take you home from the bar after you’ve had a few too many, are you driving the vehicle?
From a purely technical standpoint, it feels like the answer to this question should be obvious. If the car is “driverless” then you’re not “driving” it. But bear in mind that the analysis doesn’t end there.
Washington law, like the laws of several other states, also allows that an individual can be charged with a DUI-like offense even if he is not actually driving the car. Specifically, RCW 46.61.504 makes it a gross misdemeanor (or perhaps a felony depending on certain prior convictions) for a person to be in “actual physical control” of a vehicle if the individual is under the influence or tests in excess of these same blood alcohol content or THC concentrations within two hours after having been in “actual physical control” of the vehicle.
So what does this mean for your ability to rely on a driverless car to take you home from the bar? Or better yet, what does this mean for your future desire to sip an Old Fashioned while hurtling down the freeway? Setting aside open container laws for a moment – will you be in “actual physical control” of your driverless car while muddling your drink?
Probably so. The laws have not kept pace with the technology.
As of earlier this summer, only a handful of states had enacted laws permitting the operation of autonomous cars on public roads – and the majority of those that do allow this permit it only for purposes of testing the technology at this time. Further, only one state (Florida) has enacted laws that allow for a truly autonomous car (i.e., one without any passenger) to use the roads.
The other jurisdictions’ laws require that an operator be in the vehicle during use and that this operator be able to assume control over the car at any time. [Note: Florida law actually contains a similar requirement but allows for the operator to control the car remotely.] If the law requires you to be able to assume control over the car at any time – and the technology allows for you to assume control – then feels like a safe bet that you’re either “driving” or in “actual physical control” over the vehicle.
I posed the DUI question to a guy who has probably thought more about the intersection of law and driverless cars than anyone else – Professor Ryan Calo of the University of Washington Law School. Professor Calo (who teaches a law school course on Robotics Law and Policy – how cool is that?) expressed a concurring view – stating:
…an individual who is expected to actively monitor a system and periodically intervene—as with Tesla Autodrive in beta mode—would essentially be driving at all times in the eyes of the law.
And this, of course, is exactly the problem with your plan to take have the car drive you home from the bar. The laws today (and likely for the immediate future) evidence a bias against the technology embodied in the autonomous car. Despite all evidence to suggest that human beings are uniquely lousy at driving (impaired or not) – our laws still favor human operators.
Have our legislators have simply watched too many sci-fi movies to trust the machines?