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One for the road? Drunk-driving in autonomous cars

Alcohol: one of the main causes of road accidents. (Photo: Fotolia / pressmaster)

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Angelo Rychel
Angelo Rychel
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Hello, automated driving community! Australia wants to choose designated driverless cars, a retirement community remains mobile and San Francisco is one hell of a test area: we bring you this week’s key stories from the world of automated driving!

If you like Pina Colada, that’s totally fine. You just shouldn’t drive your car after enjoying too much of it. Sadly, drunk-driving is one of the major safety risks on our roads today. Every day, 28 people die in alcohol-related crashes in the U.S. alone.

Using self-driving vehicles to pick you up from the bar has long been dubbed one of the most promising ideas to reduce road fatalities. Now the Australian National Transport Commission (NTC) has suggested that owners of driverless cars should be exempt for DUI laws. The independent statutory body is tasked with reforming Australia’s driving laws.

The NTC argues that it’s important to give potential buyers of those cars a clear-cut exemption. “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,” a report by the NTC reads. “This would create a barrier to using a vehicle to safely drive home after drinking.”

The report is careful to avoid loopholes: the exemption should only be applied to fully autonomous cars, meaning level 5 automation. Every semi-autonomous car would pose the danger that the passenger would have to take over in certain situations – a task already considered challenging for sober people, but certainly dangerous for those who are tipsy.

Now this report represents a great example of how to create acceptance for driverless vehicles. Because it tackles an issue many people, especially in rural areas, can relate to. Imagine next time, you could simply ask the bartender to pour you some more – and still get home safe and sound in your own car.

Forever young: a retirement community on the move

Driving safe and sound is a particular challenge when it comes to testing driverless cars in public. There are basically two schools of thought here.  One is testing in suburban areas to lay the developmental groundwork before moving on to more challenging places. The other is to jump right into densely populated areas to solve the tough problems.

A great example for the former is currently taking place in a retirement community in San Jose, California. Start-up company Voyager has chosen this village of 4,000 residents with tightly controlled areas and a speed limit of 25 mph as the ideal area for trialing their autonomous shuttles – two modified Ford Fusions named “Homer” and “Marge”.

82-year old Molly Jackson, a blind retired nurse, was among the first test riders and is already sold on the concept (you can watch a video of her ride here). “I have driven with sighted people who probably do a worse job than a self-driving car,” she told the NY Times. Improving mobility for elderly people and people with disabilities is among the core goals of autonomous driving. That’s what makes these trials so valuable – even if so far, they are only happening in a gated community.

Let’s go to San Francisco – although it’s a nightmare

Conveniently, there also happens to be a perfect example for the “going tough instantly” this week. GM-owned start-up Cruise Automation just explained the reasoning behind their decision to test their driverless cars in San Francisco – where traffic can be a nightmare.

According to Cruise CEO Kyle Voigt, Cruise is currently the only company bold enough to test there. “We test in SF only because we have to,” he writes in a Medium essay. “We believe it’s the fastest path toward deploying self-driving cars at scale.” His argument: if you can make it there, you will make it anywhere. In his essay, he also provides interesting video footage of cases that make densely populated areas so challenging: broken traffic lights, people not obeying crosswalks, cyclists and construction areas are just a few of the things he lists.

Different approaches, one goal: getting safe driverless vehicles into the market as quickly as possible. It’s going to be intriguing to watch which formula will prove to be more successful.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless),

Angelo Rychel

Editor, 2025AD

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