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Welcome to FindLaw's DUI Law series. If you have been charged with a DUI, know someone who has, or just want to know about the law and how to protect your rights during a DUI stop, please come back each week for more information.
A future with self-driving or autonomous cars can be a bright one: less traffic, fewer accidents, and hopefully no more road rage. One of the many problems self-driving cars can help to solve is drunk driving. Impaired drivers could simply let their self-driving cars take over and get them home safe and sound.
But would it be that simple? We just had our first fatality in a self-driving car, but we have yet to have our first DUI in one. How would police handle a DUI in a self-driving car?
Riding and Responsibility
One of the biggest questions with self-driving cars is who is really in control of the vehicle? The driver? The software? After Joshua Brown was killed in a Tesla S last month, the car maker was quick to point out that the car's Autopilot feature requires drivers to keep their hands on the wheel at all times, and that drivers "need to maintain control and responsibility for [the] vehicle." "Autopilot is getting better all the time," Tesla asserted, "but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert."
Automated cars are still in their infancy, going through tests and alterations almost daily, but most still require some driver involvement in operating the vehicle and notify the operator that he or she is responsible for the safe operation of the vehicle. This could just be an attempt to avoid legal liability in case there's an accident, but it could absolutely matter when it comes to a DUI.
Actual Physical Control
Most state DUI laws require proof that the driver was in "actual physical control" of the vehicle. In the classic DUI case, officers see someone swerving or watch them drive up to a checkpoint, so there's not much question about who is in control of the car. Where control of the vehicle comes into play it is normally in cases where someone passed out or fell asleep in their car, or the car was otherwise not in motion at the time. Courts vary on their interpretation of actual physical control, and take into account where the car was parked, where the driver was seated, whether it was running, and/or where the keys were. In some cases, someone who was not "driving" when contacted by police can still be charged with DUI.
This could be crucial when deciding whether someone in a self-driving car can get a DUI. Was he or she in actual physical control of the vehicle? And how will courts sort it out when an impaired driver insists his car was doing all the driving? Our best guess is that responsibility will ultimately fall on the driver, absent a major software malfunction. Hopefully a self-driving car would be operating safely enough not to draw the attention of law enforcement, but if you're pulled over while drunk in an autonomous vehicle, it's probably going to be on you.
Drunk driving charges are serious, and can have a huge impact on your life. If you've been charged with a DUI, contact an experienced DUI attorney today.