Self-driving cars will be taking over the roads in our near future. They will have many benefits, including fewer accidents, lighter traffic, and ideally no road rage. They could even eliminate drunk driving—if someone is intoxicated, they could just allow their self-driving car to take them home. Yet as fatalities have started to occur in self-driving cars, the question has arisen: who takes responsibility? The same question is important to consider when it comes to DUI cases with self-driving cars. Is the car software or the impaired driver at fault?
One place to start when answering this is to ask, who has ultimate control of the vehicle? Autopilot software is advancing, but almost all require some form of driver involvement, such as keeping their hands on the steering wheel. Tesla, one company with early versions of automated cars, has stated, “Drivers need to maintain control and responsibility for [the] vehicle. Autopilot is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert." While Tesla may just be protecting themselves from legal liability here, the question remains about who will be held accountable in the case of an accident or traffic citation. Clearly some companies hope to ultimately place the responsibility on the driver.
According to DUI law in most states, courts need to see evidence that the driver was “in actual physical control” of the car in order to convict. Today, the typical DUI involves an officer observing weaving or reckless driving by the driver, in which case it’s clear the driver is at fault. Usually the complex part arises when a driver has fallen asleep or become unconscious, or if the car is not being driven at the time. Factors like where the driver is sitting, where the car is parked, where the keys are, and if the engine is running are all important for courts in deciding how to define “actual physical control.” For self-driving car DUI cases, what will happen when an inebriated driver claims the car was in full physical control? It’s likely that the driver will still be held accountable in these cases, unless a glaring car software malfunction has occurred.
Government legislation will likely continue their “light regulatory touch” philosophy when applied to self-driving car companies. Laws applying to self-driving cars are not going to be much stricter than the regulations for manually driven cars. Time will tell who will bear responsibility for DUI in self-driving cars.