Self-driving cars raise new DWI questions

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The prospect of “driving” a “self-driving” car raises the question of whether you can be charged with drunk-driving a self-driving car. Either you’re driving or you’re not, right?

Answers seem to be trickling in gradually from around the country, often as police officers and courts are faced with real-life situations.

Legislators could draft detailed statues to grapple with the autonomous vehicles, but soon after, the fast-growing industry and fast-advancing technology would make their work obsolete.

A self-driving car self-disobeys an order to pull over

Late last year, an officer notice a Tesla hurtling up Interstate 101 in California at 70 mph. The car’s turn signal flashed mile after mile past exit after exit. The officer soon realized the “driver” was asleep or passed out in what we still call the driver’s seat.

The officer’s squad lights and sirens failed to interrupt the motorist’s beauty sleep. A second police vehicle helped trap the self-driving car enough to force the car’s computer to break. A few taps on the driver’s side window awakened the proud owner to his predicament.

The incident appears to be the first of its kind.

An uncertain future has arrived

Until self-driving cars can recognize a traffic stop, it appears drivers will still be required to be sober enough to override the computer and drive. The driver will then unambiguously be operating a motor vehicle and will be subject to DWI laws.

In the near future, perhaps police cars could be equipped to communicate with directly with your car’s computer and order it to pull over. Alternately, officers might themselves be able to control the vehicle remotely and pull the car over when they see fit.

Naturally, these last possibilities raise sticky constitutional and even safety questions. The choice to obey the law and comply with an officer’s order to stop currently belongs to the citizen. If that decision is to be delegated to law enforcement and auto company programmers, it may be a worthy subject of public debate and/or litigation.

Also, while we want to be able assume law enforcement always the law and our rights, there have been cases of officers using the ability to stop drivers for more personal reasons. Rare as such cases may be, both public policy and technology may have to decide whether drivers have will be allowed to make the call.

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