What You Should Know About DUI/DWI & Self-Driving Cars

In many areas of the United States, the mere act of getting behind the wheel of a vehicle while intoxicated could land you with a DUI or DWI charge. Now imagine if your vehicle was capable of safely driving itself using the latest in autonomous vehicle technology. Self-driving cars are quickly graduating from the stuff of science-fiction tales to reality thanks to recent advances and extensive on-road testing.

Self-driving cars have the potential of making intoxicated and impaired driving a thing of the past—something that could come in handy after a wild night spent out on the town. However, there's still plenty of debate over whether a person could be—or should be—charged with DUI/DWI if they're intoxicated while inside of a self-driving car.

Physical Control Can Play a Major Role

A successful DUI or DWI conviction usually hinges on the court proving that the accused was in physical control of the vehicle at the time of the offense. The doctrine of "physical control" varies from state to state, but in most cases, the accused must either be in direct control of the vehicle, have the means with which to control the vehicle or have intent to operate the vehicle while intoxicated. Courts often determine when someone is in control of their vehicle based on the following questions:

Where is the vehicle? Being off-road or on private property instead of a public street can complicate matters, but many states allow DUI/DWI arrests regardless of where the vehicle is located.

Where is the driver? Climbing in the passenger-side seat or back seat could signal an intent to sleep away the intoxication instead of driving while intoxicated.

Where are the keys? Simply being in physical possession of car keys could establish intent to operate a motor vehicle in some jurisdictions.

Can the vehicle be driven? A driver can be charged with DUI/DWI if the vehicle itself is in an operable state.

In the case of a non-autonomous vehicle, proving physical control could lead to a slam-dunk DUI/DWI conviction. With a self-driving car, however, authorities will ask how much control do you as the driver have over the vehicle. A fully autonomous car should, in theory, take vehicle control completely out of the driver's hands aside from any verbal or physical inputs needed to set a destination.   

For semi-autonomous self-driving cars, there's still an element of physical control needed to make the technology work. Some cars may feature some form of self-driving technology, but the extent of it is limited and requires extensive driver interaction to operate safely and effectively. These issues can put self-driving vehicle users at risk of being charged with a DUI or DWI offense.

Widespread Vehicle Automation Could Influence Legal Changes

Under today's legal framework, it's still easy for self-driving vehicle users to end up with an undeserved DUI/DWI charge. As autonomous vehicle technology progresses and self-driving vehicles become more prevalent on U.S. streets, however, the laws governing DUI and DWI convictions could change to better reflect the realities of the autonomous vehicle:

  • Penalties for DUI and DWI in self-driving vehicles may be lowered or abolished depending on the user's level of control over the vehicle.
  • Exemptions can be made in open container laws to exclude fully autonomous vehicle users.
  • Courts may become increasingly reliant on software telemetry and other means of proof to establish how much control a user has over their self-driving car.
  • Manufacturers may be required by law to have fail-safes in place in case of major software failure to avoid shifting vehicle control over to an intoxicated user.   

In spite of recent advances, it could be years or even decades before autonomous vehicle technology matures enough to become widespread. Hashing out the issues surrounding self-driving cars and DUI/DWI laws can help pave the way towards a future where autonomous vehicles genuinely benefit those in need. To learn more about your rights as an owner of a self-driving car, consider reaching out to resources such as Law Office Of  Lori Crystal, LLC.