Autonomous or “self-driving” cars have the potential to transform Florida’s transportation system. Proponents claim computer-controlled vehicles will eventually reduce fatal accidents and traffic congestion. But as automotive technology evolves, there are new legal questions that will need to be answered. For example, is a person illegally driving under the influence of alcohol if their car is actually doing the “driving”?
Florida Legislators Welcome “Autonomous Vehicles”
Florida is one of the more progressive states when it comes to embracing a future with self-driving cars. In 2016, Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation making Florida the first state to fully legalize the use of “autonomous vehicles” on its public roads. And unlike other states, such as California, that only allow the use of self-driving cars with a special permit, the Florida legislation authorizes anyone with a valid driver’s license to operate such vehicles.
Section 316.003(2) of the Florida Statutes specifically defines an autonomous vehicle as one equipped with technology “that has the capability to drive the vehicle on which the technology is installed without the active control or monitoring by a human operator.” This does not mean that a car is “autonomous” just because it may have computer-based safety or “driver assistance” systems, which would effectively cover all recent vehicles. Rather, the vehicle itself must be under the control of the automated systems.
Florida law does have some requirements for autonomous vehicles. Any self-driving car must have an internal mechanism “to visually indicate when the vehicle is operating in autonomous mode,” as well as “a system to safely alert the operator” if the autonomous driving system is not functioning properly. The car must also be designed to either permit the “operator” to take control in the event of a systems failure, or, in the alternative, bring the vehicle “to a complete stop.”
Self-driving cars must also meet all applicable federal safety standards and be “capable of being operated in compliance” with Florida traffic laws.
Physical Control vs. Driving
Florida’s DUI law states that a person is guilty of drunk driving if they are “driving or in actual physical control of a vehicle within this state” with a blood-alcohol level of at least 0.08 percent. The law itself does not make an exception for self-driving cars and, as far as we know, no Florida court has actually confronted the issue. But there is legal precedent to suggest that an intoxicated “operator” of a self-driving car would be subject to the same DUI penalties as any other driver.
The key is whether or not a person has “physical control of a vehicle” even if they are not technically driving. For instance, Florida courts have long held that an intoxicated driver who pulls over to the side of the road – and falls asleep with the keys still in the ignition – is still committing DUI. The fact the driver “could have at any time started the automobile and driven away” means they still have “physical control.”
Similarly, given that Florida law requires an autonomous vehicle to enable the “operator” to take control or stop the vehicle in the event of a systems failure, a prosecutor could argue an intoxicated, non-driving operator was still legally guilty of drunk driving. But again, this remains speculation until someone brings an actual case.
Need Help Fighting a DUI Charge?
Self-driving cars may be the future. But here in the present, we still need to deal with the problem of drunk driving. If you or a family member have been arrested for DUI and need help from a qualified Orlando criminal defense lawyer, call Moses & Rooth, Attorneys at Law, today at 407-377-0150.