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  • How Will Drunk Driving Laws Adapt to Self-Driving Cars?

    Posted on by JACK MKHITARIAN

    How Will Drunk Driving Laws Adapt to Self-Driving CarsTechnological improvements move fast—much faster than the time needed to pass laws. Right now, there are no drunk driving laws for self-driving cars in New Mexico. However, New Mexico’s lawmakers could decide to change the law to address the reality of self-driving cars.

    Right now, the law surrounding drinking in a self-driving car is murky at best. However, law enforcement officers will continue to enforce New Mexico’s DUI laws aggressively until the law changes. If you have a self-driving car and the police arrest you for DUI, contact New Mexico Criminal Law Offices right away. We have over 22 years of experience fighting DWI charges in all corners of New Mexico. We are not afraid to take on a challenge and fight for what is right for our clients.

    How a Self-driving Car Works

    A self-driving car has the ability to collect and analyze data to drive safely. Vehicles can estimate distances and speeds by using a lidar sensor. Cameras mounted on all sides help the computers “see” what is around the car. Meanwhile, advanced GPS systems tell the car where to go. 

    Autonomous vehicles rely on data analysis to operate actuators based on complicated algorithms that compute at the speed of light. The so-called “brain” of the car performs the necessary algorithms to tell the car when to speed up, slow down, turn, and brake. 

    What Is a Self-driving Car?

    The question is not that easy to answer. Most of today’s vehicles employ some form of automation. Most commonly, autos come equipped with lane departure signals and emergency braking. These features qualify as autonomous because they engage without human intervention. 

    Does that mean they are self-driving? No. However, some cars on the road, most notably those manufactured by Tesla, allow the operator to engage the vehicle’s self-driving mode. Once the operator engages the self-driving mode, the vehicle operates autonomously. Notwithstanding, the operator can reassume control over the vehicle at any time. There are other cars that are fully automated and require no human intervention at all. 

    Levels of Autonomous Operation

    There was real confusion among people, even in the automotive world, when talking about different types of autonomous cars. As a result, the automotive industry devised a system to identify the various levels of autonomy, so we understand what we are talking about. 

    Level 0: No Automation 

    The driver is always in full control of the car. However, the vehicle has an automated warning system that alerts the driver to possible collisions, the presence of other objects nearby, and lane departures.

    Level 1: Driver Assistance 

    In Level 1 cars, the driver and vehicle share control. Level 1 cars have cruise control, parking assistance, and lane assistance. The vehicle corrects or performs certain actions for the driver, but the driver must steer and brake if necessary when in cruise control, parking, or changing lanes.

    Level 2: Partial Driving Automation 

    Level 2 is the “hands-off mode,” as the car can drive itself and brake, steer, and accelerate. Despite all a Level 2 vehicle does, the driver remains responsible for paying attention to their surroundings and must take over operation from the car if necessary. Most Level 2 vehicles engage the self-driving features when the operator has hands on the steering wheel.  

    Level 3: Conditional Driving Automation

    Level 3 vehicles are known as the “eyes-off mode” as they allow the driver to take their eyes off the road for extended periods. Theoretically, the person in the driver’s seat can read text messages, watch TV, and read a book. The vehicle will accelerate, steer, and brake as necessary. However, the driver must remain ready to take over control of the car.

    Level 4: High Automation

    Level 4 is also called the “mind off mode” because the driver can be fully disengaged from the car’s operation. They could take a nap, and as long as the car is on the journey the driver mapped out, the car can fully operate itself until the programmed journey ends and it needs to be parked.

    Level 5: Full Automation

    This level is called “steering wheel optional,” as it is fully automated and doesn’t need a driver present at all.

    Will New Mexico Need Drunk Driving Laws for Self-Driving Cars?

    According to New Mexico Statutes Annotated § 66-8-102, no person can drive a vehicle under the influence of alcohol or drugs or with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08% or greater. Additionally, a commercial vehicle operator cannot drive with a BAC of 0.04% or greater. 

    According to New Mexico law, driving and operating are synonyms. Beyond that, case decisions from New Mexico’s appeals courts closely analyzed the facts of each case to determine when a person has actual physical control over the operation of a vehicle and when they do not. Case law suggests that a person must have actual physical control over a vehicle, not potential control, and the driver must have a general intent to drive. So people who have fallen asleep in their cars and taken the keys out of the ignition were innocent of drunk driving because there was no evidence of their intent to drive. On the other hand, one person crashed into a median and was found sitting behind the wheel with the key in the ignition. No one saw him driving, but he told the officer he was headed to El Paso, so he was guilty of DUI. 


    Using these case decisions as precedent, you could argue that a person engaging the autonomous mode in a Level 4 self-driving vehicle had no intent to drive. On the other hand, there is the possibility that this person could form the intention to drive and take control of the car at any time. At that point, the person could be driving under the influence. According to the classification system, there seems to be no way a person in a Level 5 autonomous vehicle could operate the car. If you cannot operate the car, theoretically at least, you could not face DUI charges. As these cars do not yet exist, only time will tell precisely how the law will change to accommodate such technology.

    DUI Lawyers Who Are On the Cutting Edge of Tech

    Contact us today if you have a self-driving car and were arrested for DUI. At the New Mexico Criminal Law Offices, we focus our energy on clearing your name, and we never shy away from a challenge.