In Brief
An expert body in Australia suggests that it may be better to exempt self-driving car owners from existing DUI laws. The report finds that such laws may be restrictive of autonomous vehicles and the benefits of the technology.

Drink and Drive

Australia is generally considered to be a pretty relaxed place. You can go to work in Australia dressed in what other countries might consider to be rather casual attire. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, then, that the Australian National Transport Commission (NTC) has deemed it necessary for self-driving car owners to be exempt from the nation’s traditional driving-under-the-influence (DUI) laws for both alcohol and drugs.

In a new report called Changing driving laws to support automated vehicles, the NTC said that asking autonomous vehicle owners to be sober before getting in their vehicles is unnecessary and defeats the purpose of owning a self-driving car. “The situation is analogous to a person instructing a taxi driver where to go,” according to the NTC.

“One potential barrier to receiving the full benefits of automated vehicles would be to require occupants of automated vehicles, who are not driving, to comply with drink-driving laws,” the report added. “This would create a barrier to using a vehicle to safely drive home after drinking.”

This makes sense if you think about it. After all, driverless vehicles are exactly that — driverless. In theory, under Level 5 autonomy, a self-driving car doesn’t require intervention from a human operator. The NTC isn’t too lax about applying rules, however. “A risk of providing exemptions is that an occupant may subsequently choose to take over driving the vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” they said in the report. “If this occurred, they would become the driver of the vehicle and drink and drug driving [offenses] would apply.”

Saving Lives is the Point

More than just a wonderful display of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, autonomous vehicles are primarily designed to make roads safer. In the U.S. alone, some 30,000 to 40,000 people die from car accidents each year, and about 90 percent of these cases are due to human error. In Australia, car crashes claim around 1,300 every year, and most of these are also caused by human error.  By introducing driverless cars, we remove the greatest risk on the roads and experts think this can happen as early as 2020.

Some might worry that exempting driverless cars from DUI laws could cause problems and endanger more lives. The NTC, however, was clear about which cars and drivers would get the exemption. “Any exemptions should not apply to the fallback-ready user of a vehicle with conditional automation,” the report noted. “A fallback-ready user is required to be receptive to requests to intervene or system failures and must take over the dynamic driving task if the ADS cannot perform it.”

Now presently, most, if not all, of today’s self-driving cars are considered to be vehicles with conditional autonomy (Level 3). What the Australian NTC’s report suggests would only work when the technology is perfected and fully autonomous. The NTC made it clear that it’s exempting autonomous vehicles from DUI laws so as not to hinder the development of the technology.

“To hold the human responsible may restrict the introduction of automated vehicles into Australia and unnecessarily deny or delay the many potential benefits of the technology,” the NTC said. Currently, multiple states in Australia have allowed car makers to test self-driving vehicles on the roads.