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Can You Get a DUI While Operating a Self-Driving Vehicle?

Earlier this month, a Northern California man was arrested and charged with a DUI after he was found asleep behind the wheel of an autonomous Tesla on the freeway. CHP officers observed the car traveling approximately 70 mph and saw the driver appeared to be unconscious. Since they couldn't get the driver's attention, law enforcement positioned their patrol vehicle in front of the self-driving vehicle and gradually slowed the car down due to its “driver assist” feature. Once the Tesla came to a complete stop, police arrested the alleged drunk driver.

Now that autonomous vehicles are a reality, many people are wondering if they can be convicted of drunk driving. Since a self-driving car means it operates without driver intervention, how it is possible to be charged with DUI if you're just riding it?

However, completely autonomous vehicles have not been created yet. Rather, these types of cars are equipped with a drive-assist feature, which was mentioned earlier.

In California and many other states, a driver can be charged with DUI if he/she is in “actual physical control of the vehicle” while intoxicated. This doesn't mean an individual must be actually driving.

The court determines whether or not an alleged drunk driver was operating or in actual physical control of a vehicle, if one or more of the following circumstances are evident:

  • A person was found in the driver's seat of the vehicle
  • The keys were in the ignition
  • The engine was running
  • The tires are still warm
  • The vehicle is parked on the side of the road or highway

Going back to the example mentioned in the beginning, the driver had physical control of the vehicle because he was sitting in the driver's seat, the keys were in the ignition, and the vehicle was in motion. DUI cases where control of the car comes into play is when someone fell asleep or passed out in their parked car. So despite technically not driving, the police can still charge a person in a self-driving vehicle with DUI.

Keep in mind, if an autonomous vehicle is operating properly, there shouldn't be any reason for law enforcement to make a lawful traffic stop and suspect you drunk driving—since the driver-assist feature isn't going to allow the car to swerve between lanes. Although it is not recommended to operate a self-driving vehicle while impaired, not falling asleep behind the wheel can help you avoid a DUI—unless you are stopped at a sobriety checkpoint or an officer notices you stagger drunkenly into your vehicle.

If you have been arrested for a DUI in Ventura County, contact our Ventura criminal defense attorney at Wilfert Law P.C. and schedule a free consultation today.