Drink-driving in a driverless car should be legal, expert body says

Uber drivers could one day be spared from engaging in small talk with drunks if a National Transport Commission suggestion to allow people under the influence of alcohol to use fully automated vehicles is adopted by state road authorities.

The NTC, an independent statutory body tasked with reforming Australia’s driving laws to prepare for the arrival of driverless cars, has recommended an “exemption” from drink and drug-driving laws for people who ride in fully automated vehicles.

In a new discussion paper it argues there is a “clear-cut” justification for an exemption from drink-driving laws because there is “no possibility that a human could drive a dedicated automated vehicle”.

“The situation is analogous to a person instructing a taxi driver where to go,” the NTC report states.

State traffic laws prohibit driving under the influence of varying levels of alcohol but the NTC says they could be a “barrier” to the benefits of driverless vehicles, which it argues could improve road safety by reducing the incidence of drink-driving.

Advocates of the new technology argue its largest benefit would be reducing Australia’s road toll. There are about 1,300 deaths in Australia every year and the vast majority are caused by human error.

However, it recommend the rules remain in place for semi-autonomous vehicles or those that allow manual driving.

While individual states and territories set road rules, the NTC provides a model for nationally consistent laws.

It has been tasked with grappling with the enormous regulatory overhaul required to respond to the introduction of driverless-vehicle technology, which some estimate could be on roads in Australia by 2020.

That includes the question of who is liable in the event of driverless vehicle malfunction that results in an accident and to what extent a person in an autonomous vehicle is deemed to be in control.

Current laws assume that a person is in control of a vehicle but the NTC believes that should be changed so that a person “would not expect to be held responsible for contraventions of the laws” while an automated vehicle was engaged.

“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,” the NTC found.

Instead, the law should be changed so that the automated driving system itself was legally responsible.

The NTC is due to make recommendations for reforms at the 2018 transport and infrastructure council meeting of Commonwealth, state and territory transport ministers.

Various states and territories have legislated to allow trials of driverless-vehicle technology in recent years.

South Australia passed legislation last year, while New South Wales passed legislation to allow its own trials in August.


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