The tech and automotive industries have been pushing to get self-driving cars on the road, and now they are getting some support from America’s alcohol industry. The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, a group representing almost 400 U.S. alcohol brokers, officially joined the Coalition for Future Mobility, which has lobbied for self-driving cars. In the same first week of March, The Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (FAAR), an industry-funded nonprofit that combats underage drinking and drunk driving, backed a pending bill that would expedite the commercialization of self-driving vehicles. FAAR’s members include Diageo, Pernod Ricard, Bacardi, and Constellation, four of the world’s largest liquor and beer producers.
Industry experts say self-driving cars could boost alcohol sales by as much as $250 billion while also reducing drunk drivers and accidents caused by drunk driving. However, it is important to distinguish between the semi-autonomous cars currently on the market and a true self-driving car.
Many car manufacturers are offering the semi-self-driving feature. Systems include Tesla’s Autopilot, Cadillac’s Super Cruise, Audi’s Traffic Jam Pilot, Nissan’s ProPilot Assist, and Mercedes’ Drive Pilot. They all work by using existing safety features such as adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and automatic emergency braking along with cameras and radars to help the car stay in its lane and maintain a safe distance from other vehicles.
Most importantly, all of these systems still require a human driver to be paying attention and ready to respond in case the car faces something unexpected, like if a surfboard falls off of a car and lands in the middle of the road. Tesla’s Autopilot necessitates that the driver touch the steering wheel periodically. Audi’s Traffic Jam Pilot uses a camera to assess the position of the driver’s head and eyes to ensure they are looking ahead at the road. If the driver’s eyes are closed or head is turned for an extended period of time, the system prompts the driver in three phases from visual and auditory warnings to an emergency brake application.
After feeling like the car has been driving by itself for miles, it’s easy for drivers to be lulled into a false sense of security. Plus, the auto industry is doing an awful job educating the public on how these new systems work. A survey found that most of the 450 participants couldn’t decipher the system’s features based on its name alone. Participants seemed to understand that a system with the word “cruise” in its name needed the driver to stay alert, but they weren’t sure about a system’s capabilities when “assist” was part of the name.
“If there’s inconsistency with how things are named across different semi-autonomous features that have different capabilities, that can lead to confusion for consumers both when they’re purchasing systems and when they’re using systems,” says Hillary Abraham, who worked on the research and studies how humans interact with driver assistance systems at MIT. “It’s important to understand how terminology can affect a consumer’s preconceived notion of what they might be capable of, and how it relates to other systems that might be on the market,” says Abraham.
“What you call something can be a kind of implicit promise that the feature is capable of behaving safely under certain circumstances,” says Ryan Calo, who specializes in cyber law and robotics at the University of Washington’s School of Law. A judge or jury could possibly perceive Autopilot or ProPilot to mean that a vehicle is designed to pilot itself, regardless of the fine print.
In a perfect world, the abilities and limitations of semi-autonomous cars would be fully explained to the buyer at the dealership, but even some salespeople don’t know much about what they are selling, or at least they are unable to explain the features clearly.
The lack of clear understanding of these semi-autonomous cars and the perception that the car is driving itself sheds some light on why a driver might believe they are not breaking any laws by getting behind the wheel of one of these vehicles while under the influence. However, you will still be charged with DUI because the current technology still requires someone to operate the vehicle.
Under Hawaii Revised Statutes 291E-61, “A person commits the offense of operating a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant if the person operates or assumes actual physical control of a vehicle:
(1) While under the influence of alcohol in an amount sufficient to impair the person’s normal mental faculties or ability to care for the person and guard against casualty;
(2) While under the influence of any drug that impairs the person’s ability to operate the vehicle in a careful and prudent manner;
(3) With .08 or more grams of alcohol per two hundred ten liters of breath; or
(4) With .08 or more grams of alcohol per one hundred milliliters or cubic centimeters of blood.
The word “operate” in this case “means to drive or assume actual physical control of a vehicle upon a public way, street, road, or highway or to navigate or otherwise use or assume physical control of a vessel underway on or in the waters of the State.”
Regardless of whether autopilot is on, the person behind the wheel still has physical control, and therefore, under the language of the law, will be arrested and charged with suspicion of a DUI. This happened in San Francisco when a man passed out behind the wheel of his Tesla while crossing Bay Bridge. He assured the arresting officers that woke him up that his car was “on autopilot” and was later found to have a blood alcohol level of at least twice the legal limit. A spokesperson for Tesla said, “autopilot is intended for use only with a fully attentive driver.”
Technology is advancing quickly, and someday there may come a time when you are able to get into a self-driving car and have it automatically take you to your destination without you doing anything that could be argued as operating the vehicle. This would mean you would not start the engine, program GPS, or sit anywhere near the driver’s seat while intoxicated. You would enter the vehicle in the backseat where you wouldn’t be able to have any access to physical control. The car would sense you and drive to your destination, which would have been pre-programmed while you were sober, and no further interaction or assistance would be necessary. Until that time comes, it’s safer to have a designated driver or call yourself a ride.