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Self-driving vehicles have been approved in California by statute and could be on the road as soon as the end of 2015. The arrival of self-driving vehicles raises a number of questions relating to how these vehicles will fit in with the existing rules of the road. One key question is how California’s DUI laws will apply to self-driving vehicles and whether or not a person could be prosecuted and convicted of driving under the influence in a car that operates autonomously.
A self-driving car operates by sensing the environment around it and navigating without any human interaction or control. The vehicle relies on GPS, its own navigation system and various sensors that include laser rangefinder, radar and video.
California courts or legislators have not addressed this directly, however the issue will almost certainly become prominent as these vehicles begin appearing on the road. Senate Bill 1298, which was passed into law and permits the use of autonomous vehicles in California, states that “autonomous vehicle shall allow the operator to take control in multiple manners, including, without limitation, through the use of the brake, the accelerator pedal, or the steering wheel and it shall alert the operator that the autonomous technology has been disengaged.” This means that under California law, a driver must always have the ability to gain and maintain control of a self-driving vehicle. This is a safety measure to ensure that a human operator will ultimately be responsible for the vehicle’s operation.
In the context of DUI law, a person can be found guilty if he or she is determined to be “operating” a motor vehicle. While an autonomous vehicle may drive itself, California law requires that a human operator must be able to assert control over the vehicle. There is a strong argument that because a human driver is ultimately responsible for controlling the self-driving vehicle if it were to malfunction or lose control, that person should not be allowed to be impaired. Additionally, it may be argued that because the human driver in the vehicle ultimately retains control over the operation of that vehicle, he or she would still be liable under California’s DUI laws.
The opposing argument would be that any human in a self-driving is equivalent to a passenger in a regular vehicle, and thus the DUI laws would not apply to them. California’s DUI laws prohibit driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs or with a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher and there is an argument to be made that riding in a self-driving vehicle is simply not driving. As these vehicles become increasingly prevalent, courts will no doubt hear challenges regarding DUI charges in self-driving vehicles and the legislature may be required to amend or rewrite California’s DUI laws.
Recent studies regarding autonomous vehicles show that people have a great deal of difficulty regaining control from these vehicles when necessary and this function may ultimately prove to be unsafe. As this technology becomes widespread, the law will have to adapt to accommodate it.