Driverless cars: drinking and driverless

Private Life and Mobility

Phil Brown

Phil Brown



Is this the end of the designated driver?

There's every chance you've thought it too: will driverless cars mean I can drink and 'drive'? Especially during the festive season, and with autonomous driving getting more and more mainstream-coverage with every passing week, it's no doubt the thought is becoming more and more prevalent. And seeing as many of us enjoy a tipple, and often resent having to stick to the soft drinks when it's 'our turn', it's undoubtedly crossed most people's minds more than once.

Especially on New Year's Eve, when taxis and hotels cost three times their usual price – and that's if you're smart enough to book in advance. The idea of enjoying a messy night out and not worrying about how everyone is going to get home safely, and cost-effectively, must be appealing.

But is it a realistic dream?


What is 'drunk driving'?

When you 'drunk drive' you don't necessarily have to be 'drunk'. You simply must have ingested enough alcohol to feel the effects. And, turns out, you don't need much at all.

Alcohol is a drug acting as a "nervous system depressant" which, according to Drug Science means it: "works by slowing down parts of the brain. Areas that it affects include those that control inhibition, thought, perception, attention, judgement, memory, sleep and coordination." This can result in the user being more animated, relaxed and social – but it comes at a serious cost. And the higher the level of blood-alcohol concentration, the higher the cost.

The negative effects of alcohol are never more apparent, or more deadly, than when driving. The Alcohol Rehab Guide says: "any amount of alcohol in your bloodstream can impact your driving ability. Safe driving requires the ability to concentrate, make good judgements and quickly react to situations. However, alcohol affects these skills, putting yourself and others in danger."

The effects of alcohol on driving can be summarised as the slowing of reaction times, reduced coordination and concentration, blurred vision, and inhibited judgement.

Different countries have different limits on how much is 'too much', but it's almost globally frowned upon. Countries such as Armenia, the Czech Republic, Jordan and Romania have a total ban in place, with other countries such as China, Sweden and Japan following closely behind, with a 0.02% blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit – 20 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood. This is a level easily achieved with a few sips of an average-strength alcoholic beverage. Despite this, and how well documented – and criminalised – drunk driving is, it is still very commonplace globally.


The consequences of drunk driving

The penalties for drink driving differ from country to country. In the UK, for example, you could face up for 6 months imprisonment, an unlimited fine and a driving ban for at least a year. And, if you cause death by dangerous driving, you could face up to 14 years behind bars. And that's if you aren't the casualty.


Despite the fact cars are getting safer, and their passengers less likely to be killed in a collision, fatalities are still depressingly commonplace, with alcohol as a very common cause.

According to Forbes, South Africa has the biggest number of driving deaths: "with 25.1 deaths per 100,000 people every year. Shockingly, nearly 6 out of every 10 fatalities (58%) on South Africa's roads can be attributed to alcohol consumption."

Canada and the United States follow that, with 34% and 31% of road fatalities attributed to alcohol, with 10,497 deaths in in the US in 2016. That's roughly 28 people a day – and that doesn't take into consideration those who survived with serious life-altering injuries.

The driverless difference

Thankfully, most people don't drink and drive. But, as the statistics show, it's still a global problem. Whether it's legal or not, some people will take the risk – and sometimes the consequences will be disastrous.

Driverless cars are likely to reduce the number of casualties significantly. An AI will be more capable of piloting a vehicle than a fully sober person, let alone a person under the influence of alcohol.

But is it likely to ever become legal to drink and drive – even if the vehicle drives itself.

Well, the answer isn't straightforward, or even fully decided. As it stands, according to the current levels of autonomy, everything up to Level 5 (i.e. full autonomy) still requires a human driver for some input. They must be legally able to drive – which includes completely sober.

There has been a recent incident with the Tesla S's Level 2 autopilot function, in which a driver in San Francisco was found "passed out" at the wheel, two times over the legal limit. Thankfully nobody was hurt, but the driver did excuse his behaviour by saying that the car was "in Autopilot" when he was arrested.


It's obvious that, for everything up to Level 5, the normal drink driving rules will apply. This means someone will have to still act as the 'designated driver', even if they don't do much actual driving. But what about fully autonomous vehicles? As it stands, the answer is currently firmly in the region of academia.

When lawyer John French spoke to CoventryLive, a publication in the city famous for producing, and testing Jaguar Land Rover's autonomous vehicles, he was positive about its possibility:

“There is no law at present stating if you are in a fully autonomous motor vehicle that you are exempt from drink driving rules. However, it appears to make perfect sense that an individual being driven in a fully autonomous vehicle cannot be a ‘driver’ in any sense of the word or be ‘in charge’ of the vehicle and is merely a ‘passenger’ – i.e. akin to being in the back of a taxi."

The National Transport Commission in Australia, which is currently preparing Australian driving laws for driverless vehicles, has also argued in favour of an exemption – but only if there is “no possibility that a human could drive" the vehicle in question.

Not adding this exemption could make the public reluctant to warm to the technology in its entirety, as the report went on to say:

“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.”

We're still some distance from fully autonomous cars being a possibility, mostly due to infrastructure and legality. But, when that day comes, experts seem to think that they could be exemptions drink driving laws – or at least there should be.

But what do you think? Would you feel safe getting into an autonomous vehicle when over the legal limit this New Year’s Eve – or beyond? Join the debate and let us know your thoughts.

In the meantime, please drink responsibly, take care of each other and take a taxi home.

2025AD wishes you a merry christmas and a happy new year

From all of us at 2025AD we wish you a merry Christmas and a very happy new year! We are taking a short break over the festive season, but will be back in January 2020 with fresh and exciting news, features, expert opinions and social polls for all things driverless and global.

See you then!



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