Australian Commission Wants To Allow Intoxicated People To Use Driverless Cars

Should you be able to crack open a cold one while you car drives you around?

Assorted craft beer samples at a micro-brewery
John Greim—LightRocket via Getty Images

It's being reported that an Australian advisory board, the National Transport Commission (NTC) is seeking to allow intoxicated people to use driverless cars. Under current law in most countries, an intoxicated person would not be permitted to be the occupant of a driverless car without a sober person as the operator, even if the sober person doesn't actually drive the car. It seems like common sense to allow an autonomous car drive an intoxicated person or persons around. This would arguably make roads safer by have less drunk and impaired drivers behind the wheel, but there are many aspects to address to make this a reality.  

The largest obstacle to this happening is that driverless cars aren't quite driverless yet. Currently, the public really only has access to Level Three autonomy. The driverless/driver assist systems that are commercially available still require driver input. Full driverless Level Four and Level Five systems are being developed and will be commercially available possibly as early as 2020. This gives the world time to put laws in place that will dictate how situations like this will be handled. 

Getting those laws written and passed is the other big obstacle. These things take time and in places like the United States, there are so many jurisdictions that need to draft and pass their own law, Our federal government will pass a law governing this, but individual states may choose to pass slightly different laws than the federal government does. 

What exactly would need to be regulated? If you asked, most people would think that a drunk person using their driverless car to get them home after having three too many at the bar would be a good thing. You hop in and tell the car to take you home and that's it. It would be like taking a taxi. 

Except that's not it. The way many drunk driving laws are written, it is illegal to even be in the driver's seat, or sometimes anywhere in the car (if you are alone), with the keys. The very valid argument is that the intoxicated person, who is not in the mindset to make the right decision, could start the car and drive while completely sloshed. What would stop that same person from taking control of their driverless car halfway through the trip home and then drunkenly plowing into a bus full of nuns? 

What would need to pass or be changed for a driverless car to be used in this situation? There would have to be a hard definition of who is considered a "driver." In a Level Five autonomous car, and even in Level Four, there would be no need for a human driver. Laws would have to reflect that just because a person has the key fob and is in the vehicle, they aren't necessarily "driving." Laws would have to mandate that in order for an intoxicated person to be driven home by their car, that there is no way for them to take control of the vehicle.  A system would have to be put in place, a "drunk mode" that once activated, will take the person home without the ability to override it. 

Car and autonomous driving system manufacturers would be tasked with designing a system or a set of universal protocols to make sure these vehicles comply with however these laws are crafted. Or they might have to come up with the protocols first to show proof of concept in order to have the laws written to work with the solutions they devise. The whole process is cyclical. Lawmakers and industry leaders from around the world are going to have to work together. That should be fun.

And yes, the people who write these laws will most certainly try to embed their personal morality into these laws. There will be push-back against the whole thing at first. An argument will be made that this will only encourage people to drink more and more often. That is most certainly not the case. What it will do is keep drunk drivers off the road.

Debates will happen, compromises will be made. In the early years of Level Four and Level Five cars, it's a safe bet that they will be regulated so that one can not use them to go from bar to bar all night. Odds are that you won't be able to have an open beer in the car, either. It's not that doing these things are any less safe than the car shuttling you and your drunk friends home at the end of the night. 

The car isn't drunk and can't be distracted by you and your buddies screaming along to "Sweet Caroline" at the top of your drunk lungs in your rolling bar. If the car is doing all the driving, it's not going to be speeding or running stop signs. The car is going to be the best driver out there. It's not going to be swerving because you are drunk.  

Isn't part of the point of the driverless car to take the human and human error out of the equation in the name of safety? So if you and the significant other are going out for the night, why shouldn't you be able to have a few drinks on the way to dinner or a concert while the car drives you? 

If these issues aren't addressed in advance, someone is just going to crack open a cold one while riding in their driverless car because they can. That someone will end up getting a DUI while in the backseat when they are being chauffeured around by their car. That's going to be a fun case that drags on for a very long time. This needs to be addressed. There needs to be some guidance on how to handle this. Maybe the solution is to allow it and dictate the circumstances that make it legal. Or maybe the answer still apply the current crop of DUI laws to driverless cars. However it is decided, there needs to be an answer. 

Some country has to take the first step to address this and Australia seems to be doing just that. The NTC has released a paper that outlines the discussion that Australian lawmakers need to have to sort this out in advance of Level Four and Five cars being available for purchase. It's a long but interesting read. You should at least have a look at it, if not read the whole thing as this is a conversation that we should all should pay attention to, The paper goes beyond the issue of drinking and riding, but a lot of those issues are relevant to being drunk or drinking in a driverless car. 

It's a brave new world that we are entering. We need sensible laws to guide us into the next generation of automobiles where "auto" is the key part of that word. So hang on, it's going to be a bumpy ride as this plays out over the next few years.