Drivers of ‘dedicated’ autonomous vehicles should be exempt from drink-driving laws, according to the National Transport Commission, an advisory body on transportation in Australia. The organisation made the call in a discussion paper, in which it also branded current driving rules as ‘barriers’ to the introduction of autonomous vehicles.
This report marks the latest progress in the NTC’s mission to develop reform options on current driving regulations, after being tasked by the Transport and Infrastructure Council in November 2016. Now, the NTC has warned that if current drink-driving laws are not updated or removed by 2020 – when fully autonomous cars are expected to enter Australian markets – the country faces sacrificing the, “safety, productivity, environmental, and mobility,” positives that autonomous vehicles entail.
The report reads: “Barriers to use will reduce the uptake of automated vehicles and, therefore, the associated road safety benefits. 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 drinkdriving laws. This would create a barrier to using a vehicle to safely drive home after drinking.
“Enabling people to use an automated vehicle to drive them home despite having consumed alcohol has the potential to improve road safety outcomes by reducing the incidence of drink-driving.”
Central to the NTC’s argument is that ‘automated driving systems’, not humans, will control fully driverless cars. The NTC concedes, however, that some room for error remains, such as disabling the vehicle’s ADS after the vehicle is put in motion. In this instance, the NTC recommends that the intoxicated driver be subject to standard drink-driving regulations should they wrest control of the vehicle. But the NTC also admits that this risk may be ‘too great’ for some governments, and that more intricate policy-making may have to come forward.
Most interestingly, the NTC in the paper calls for ‘legal entities’ – rather than strictly the driver – to be held responsible for the actions of the ADS and any collisions that may occur. The NTC identifies ‘fallback-ready users’ and the manufacturer of the vehicle as potential automated driving system entities (ADSEs). These individuals would be subject to penalties should driving infractions occur – for example, if an ADS was to make an illegal turn, the manufacturer might be penalised for implementing a technical fault in their cars.
The report concludes: “Legislative barriers should not be removed without ensuring that the intent of the laws—to ensure the safe operation of vehicles on Australian roads—is maintained.
“Any amendments to legislation required to achieve this will need to be in place in time for the commercial deployment of vehicles with high or full automation functions. These amendments should also be implemented in parallel with the reforms to establish a safety assurance system, the purpose of which is to ensure automated vehicles are safe to use on our roads.”
Paul Retter, Chief Executive of the NTC, stressed that current legislation in Australia was not keeping pace with the dawn of driverless cars. Mr Retter said: “The introduction of more automated vehicles will see elements of the driving task shift away from the human driver to the automated driving system but our laws currently don’t recognise these systems.
“We need to ensure that relevant driving laws apply to automated vehicles when the automated driving system — rather than the human driver — is operating the vehicle.”