Drunk in a self-driving vehicle – what’s the law?


Jonathan Miller Head Shot

As vehicles become more sophisticated and require less human interaction, self-driving autos could change how impaired driving statutes apply, Toronto civil and commercial litigator Jonathan Miller tells

But as long as self-propelled vehicles have a steering wheel and gas and brake pedals, drivers will continue to have care and control over them, says Miller, an associate with the Toronto office of Shibley Righton LLP.

He comments about the future of automobiles and drunk-driving charges after a man in a self-driving Tesla was accused of being impaired at the time of a July 28, 2017, incident on the Bay Bridge linking Oakland and San Jose, Calif., according to The Mercury News.

California Highway Patrol reported the man blew twice the legal limit for blood-alcohol and was charged with driving under the influence.

The Criminal Code of Canada states in s. 253 that it's an offence to be impaired by alcohol or drugs while in control of a vehicle "whether it is in motion or not."

Miller wonders if that section would still apply once manufacturers remove the steering wheel, pedals and manual controls. That type of vehicle is fast approaching as GM has announced its plans to mass-produce one next year.

It remains to be seen how drunk-driving will be defined in the future with self-propelled vehicles with little or no input from a person, he says.

"It's certainly one of the things we're going to have to take into consideration as this technology develops,” says Miller. “It raises questions now that we have to be prepared for down the road."

Because existing self-driving vehicles still require human interaction and control — which makes them semi-automated — current traffic and impaired driving laws apply, he says.

"I question how long that might hold up as technology advances," Miller says. "I wonder if it’s going to get to a point where a person gets in and starts the vehicle and gives it a destination, but aside from that, none of its movement is related to input from any passengers."

He says it may solve a problem in the future, where someone who has been drinking could program their auto-piloted vehicle to move on its own to a specific destination.

Some countries, including Australia, are studying technological advances as they prepare to make legislative changes. Australia's National Transport Commission recently issued a report calling for new driving laws that would allow impaired people to operate those high-level self-driving vehicles that are still under development, but would not apply to the currently available semi-automated models.

At the moment, impaired driving legislation applies to drivers of all automated modes of transportation "because there is too much user input involved," Miller says. "There's still a steering wheel there because if something happens, the auto-pilot disengages and then the user is expected to control the vehicle."

But, he says laws for impaired driving may change drastically once the technology develops to where the vehicle has no controls, such as a steering wheel.

"Then you don't have that input from the user, it's almost like an automated taxi service at that point," Miller says. "It's no different than getting into a taxi and saying, 'I want to go here.'"

He notes that a vehicle without manual controls would also give vital mobility to a physically challenged person.

"I think we're getting into that sci-fi world where maybe 30 years from now we've got no steering wheel in vehicles on the road anymore — they're all automated. But until that time, impaired driving laws are very much an issue," Miller says.

He also wonders if impaired driving charges would apply if a person is sitting in a passenger seat rather than the driver's seat of a semi-automated model.

"I don't know if the technology is at that level to make it a possibility yet, but certainly I would think at some point somebody is going to raise that as a defence to an impaired-driving charge," Miller says.

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