Being under the influence of alcohol or drugs while in charge of a vehicle is rightly considered a big no-no. It’s dangerous and puts lives at risk. But what if the vehicle was autonomously driving itself, and you’re technically just a passenger? Should you be able to remain in charge of a vehicle, even when you’re drunk? Well, the Australian National Transport Commission (NTC) thinks the answer is yes.
It’s all part of the continuous debate and wrangling over the future of regulations surrounding autonomous vehicles. We’re seeing an increasing amount of testing from a range of companies, and the US House of Representatives has just passed an act permitting car companies to test up to 100,000 autonomous vehicles on American roads. The concept of autonomous cars is clearly edging closer and closer to reality, and the world is not yet fully prepared for it. This raises many difficult and interesting questions about responsibility and accountability.
The NTC is attempting to help answer these questions and address the issues in its new report titled “Changing driving laws to support automated vehicles,” released this month. In the 70+ page document, the Commission outlines the reforms that it feels need to be made to existing driving laws to take into account the clear differences between manual and automated vehicles.
Increasing road safety is the goal
It’s a comprehensive report that aims to clarify the exact legal responsibilities pertaining to people using autonomous vehicles, taking into account the extent of autonomy of the vehicle. And this is where the point about being under the influence comes in. If a vehicle is at Level 5, the highest level of autonomy where the vehicle is fully automated and always driving, then the person in the vehicle is really no different than a passenger in a manually operated taxi.
Automated vehicles are being touted as one of the main ways to improve road safety, as they will greatly reduce the risk of human error, which is the leading cause of road accidents. The NTC makes the point that if there are barriers in place that limit the use of automated vehicles, such as not being able to use one when you’re under the influence, then it will discourage their use in a situation which would have huge benefits for safety.
The report states:
“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. This would create a barrier to using a vehicle to safely drive home after drinking. Enabling people to use an automated vehicle to drive them home despite having consumed alcohol has the potential to improve road safety outcomes by reducing the incidence of drink-driving.”
So, while at first it might seem counterintuitive to allow alcohol or drugs and vehicles to mix, the positive impacts could be drastic. Right now automated vehicles are being tested on Australian roads, and it is estimated that fully automated vehicles will be in use by 2020. This makes it imperative that difficult and controversial issues such as these are ironed out sooner rather than later.