Autonomous Cars Can Save Drinking Culture

Self-driving cars will be the life of the party. And they’ll save lives.

Heinz Wohner/Getty Images

Here’s the evening plan: Drive to that new Italian spot, maybe a nice bottle of Nebbiolo; wheel over to your favorite cocktail joint, where the bartender makes a mean Negroni. Now everyone’s lit and happy, but the buds need a ride home. No, really, I got this. Climb aboard.

It sounds like the lead-in to a Driver’s Ed video, the one where the drunk driver kills his girlfriend and hangs his head as he’s sentenced to prison. But in this version, the car full of partiers not only escapes unscathed, but the driver did the responsible thing: The car drove itself, soberly and inside the lines, a two-ton revolution that we’ll call a Robotic Designated Driver, or RDD.

In all the utopian talk of an autonomous-driving future—the lives, injuries, social and medical costs that could be saved with skilled robotic chauffeurs—there’s been little mention of the worst human foible on the roads: drunk driving. But autonomous cars, once fully evolved, could rid the world of this social scourge. Forever.

Imagine: Parents sleeping peacefully, never worrying that their child is drinking and driving, or at risk with an inebriated friend. Imagine never having to talk the keys out of a friend’s hand. Uber’s biggest pitch of late, as it expands on college campuses, is being a designated driver for hire, offering free rides in one New Jersey town. Even the tech-savvy Uber could be defenseless against an army of robo-chauffeurs.

The good news is fatal alcohol-related crashes have fallen by 23 percent in just a decade. Still, it remains a leading cause of collisions, injuries and deaths; in 2013, over 10,000 fatalities involved drivers with a blood alcohol concentration above .08 grams per deciliter—the legal limit in 50 states and the District of Columbia. That’s 31 percent of all traffic fatalities. Texas, perhaps unsurprisingly, led all states with 1,337 alcohol-linked fatalities, dwarfing California in second place with 867. The annual economic toll is estimated at nearly $50 billion.

Thomas Müller, head of driver assistance systems for Audi AG, says car owners are already intrigued by the idea of digital designated driving. He recalls the mayor of Ingolstadt, Germany, where Audi is headquartered, suggesting how Oktoberfest celebrations would be greatly improved by autonomy.

“The mayor asked me, ‘When can I have a car pick up my daughter from the party at 3 a.m., while I’m sleeping?”

If that sounds like a frivolous gain, think again.

Colleen Sheehey-Church lost her teenage son in 2004. He drowned when an alcohol-impaired teen drove their car into a river. Now the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Sheehey-Church said that if autonomous technology had been available, her son Dustin might be alive today.

“My hope is that there will be a day when no family will endure the agony of drunk driving, and that supports development of this technology,” Sheehey-Church says.

Audi, whose SQ5 crossover made headlines with the first autonomous coast-to-coast trip in April (nine days and 3,400 miles from San Francisco to New York) is busily driving toward just such a future. Models like the new Audi Q7 let drivers keep hands entirely off the steering wheel and pedals in highway traffic. So do and several Mercedes. And the Volvo XC90, which’ll freeway auto-pilot for up to 30 seconds.

Nissan insists it will bring an autonomous car to showrooms by 2020. But Audi, Müller says, puts full-on “Level 5” autonomy, in which a driver could check out—or, well, pass out—a good 15 years away.

Bryant Walker Smith agrees. Now an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina, Smith led legal research in autonomous driving at Stanford University. As the first state to authorize and create rules for autonomous cars, Nevada and its Department of Motor Vehicles were clear: You can’t get soused and leave the driving to the car. California and other states are following Nevada’s lead.

“The law will rely on the human to play some part of the driving role, to have a license and behave as the driver of any conventional vehicle,” he says.

In the early twentieth century, when many wealthy owners hired chauffeurs and couldn’t drive themselves, the law grappled with similar issues. Smith: Is the owner barking orders from the back seat the “driver”, or is it the chauffeur? Lawmakers quickly decided that the person at the controls was responsible for driving safely, or not.

Today’s drunk driving laws broadly define a “driver.” Pull over to sleep one off in the back seat? You’re a drunk driver. Ditto the guy who’s blasted and pushing his car down the road. Seeking to cover any crazy scenario in a country that logs three trillion miles a year, the law (for now, at least) will ensure human drivers don’t escape liability, says Smith. He adds that, under current California law, you could be charged with drunk driving if you pressed the “go” button on an autonomous car that circled the block while you downed shots at a bar. Those laws will evolve with the technology. But as things stand, the magnanimous claims of Google or Mercedes, that their companies will shoulder full liability for their cars’ transgressions, are simply hot air—unless and until humans are taken out of the equation.

Müller agrees. Audi’s philosophical direction is that “People still need to have responsibility in the car. That you’re available and not doing any stupid thing. This is the scenario we will have for many years in the field.”

To keep drivers’ heads in the game, Audi is developing facial-recognition cameras that scan for open eyes and alertness—or the smartphone or newspaper that’s distracting them. If the driver checks out or nods off, and ignores vehicle alerts, an Audi could come to a standstill or find a safe place to pull over on a highway, or summon medical help for, says, a heart attack.

Under European definitions, the industry is nearing autonomy Level 3, with cars able to manage simpler scenarios, like stop-and-go traffic, while handing control to the driver when it encounters difficulty. Level 4 will see cars handling every task “from A to Z, every road and highway,” Müller says. Finally, the nirvana of Level 5 will render drivers obsolete; Internet-connected cars quiz occupants on whether they’d like a longer route for more time to read or nap. In that Jetsons’ outtake, the Audi A10 of 2030 might spit a perfectly shaken martini out of the glovebox. Here, MADD’s Sheehey-Church doused a common misconception over the group’s mission: “We’re not against drinking. We’re against someone impaired getting behind the wheel.”

And if there’s no wheel to get behind, problem solved.

Nissan’s IDS concept car, unveiled recently at the Tokyo Motor Show, is among cars whose steering wheel tucks away in self-drive mode. At that point, experts say, the driver’s traditional space up front becomes a mere psychological issue, not a legal or social one.

Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says that once the link between a driver and controls is severed, “It’s no different from having a designated driver or calling a taxi.”

The IIHS is closely tracking semi-autonomous features, which are rapidly moving from luxury to mainstream cars. Early returns are positive: Cars equipped with forward collision warning systems show a roughly 10 percent reduction in insurance claims; that jumps to almost 20 percent when an auto-braking is added. (Current lane-departure systems are showing little ability to reduce accidents).

“We need to see success with these [basic] systems to make sure we can trust fully automated technology,” Lund says.

Smith suggests that true RDD’s will come first to urban downtowns, airports, colleges or Google-style corporate campuses, where relatively low-speed cars can safely shuttle passengers in closed environments.

“I think we’ll quickly see intoxicated people being able to jump into these vehicles. These cars probably won’t take you from the suburbs to a restaurant in Miami, but in particular environments, it’s a real possibility.”

The IIHS and MADD see promise in a transitional technology known as DADDS: The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, a collaboration between 17 automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The idea is to develop voluntary and unobtrusive alcohol-detection systems, breath- or touch-based, as options for new cars—a more sophisticated take on breathalyzer-based ignition interlocks mandated for some convicted drunk drivers.

Car buyers, Lund says, will reject clunky or expensive alcohol detection systems, especially the 40 percent of car owners who don’t drink at all. But what if, say, a tailgate partier could jump into his car, get instant feedback on his condition, and still have a guaranteed ride home?

“More transparent sensors could simply not allow manual operation if a driver is over the limit,” Lund says. “Your vehicle wouldn’t have to be immobilized; it would just go into autonomous mode.”

Sounds awesome to us. So let’s raise a glass to these robotic wingmen of the future. The designated drivers that will be the life of the party, even as they save lives.

“Eventually we’ll get there. The only question is when,”  Müller says.