California DUI And Self Driving Vehicles


It was sure to come soon. A San Francisco driver was arrested for DUI last week after he was found sleeping behind the wheel of his stalled Tesla smack dab in the middle of the Bay Bridge. The driver pleaded his innocence to the officers on the basis that his Tesla Model S was on autopilot. Nope, not so fast—at least for now. While the “self-driving” ability of the vehicle may have caused the driver to believe he could use the car as his “designated driver” or at least use that as an excuse when the cops found him, the Tesla isn’t yet ready for prime-time self-driving capabilities. For now, the self-driving cars have all the driver controls and requires an alert driver in control of the vehicle, even if it is presumably driving itself.

But this poses an interesting question that law makers will have to address in the near future when self-driving cars really are self-driving with no driver required. Yes, that is coming.

Under current law, a person can be arrested for a DUI if he or she, while under the influence, is in physical control of the vehicle and causes the vehicle to move in the slightest amount. We might wonder how our San Francisco driver was arrested for a DUI when he found asleep and clearly not causing the car to move. However, the prosecution will base its case on the circumstantial evidence that the Tesla was moving before it ended up on the Bay Bridge. The driver’s only defense would be that the car stalled out on the Bay Bridge and at the time he was sober, but then got drunk (at twice the legal limit) while sitting in his Tesla on the bridge. Yeah, not likely.

But what about the trickier question: was he in physical control of his vehicle if it was on autopilot? The technology, as it is today, still requires an alert driver to take the controls if the vehicle’s autopilot fails and that has happened. The San Francisco driver’s defense may try arguing that he was not in control of the vehicle, that the vehicle was in control of itself, and therefore a crucial element of the offense of DUI was missing. That defense is unlikely to succeed since human drivers are required to be at the ready to take control on the self-driving Teslas.

An experienced DUI defense attorney may be able to poke enough holes in the prosecution’s case under these circumstances to obtain a more favorable outcome in the driver’s defense.

But very soon, when no human driver at the controls are required, the conditions will change. Essentially, we will be passengers in our self-driving cars and therefore not in control of the vehicle. But wait! We tell the vehicle where to go; does that make the human passenger “in control” and the cause of the vehicle’s movement? Will the DUI laws be amended to account for this? Is telling a self-driving car where to go anymore “in control” and “causing the vehicle’s movement” than telling a cab driver where to go? You can see how complicated it may get. If that is not enough, word is that we will have flying cars within the next ten years.

Irvine DUI defense attorney William Weinberg is available to answer your questions about any DUI matter. He has been defending DUI charges in all Orange County courts for 25 years and looks forward to defending flying car DUI offenses in the future. You may contact him for a free consultation at (949) 474-8008 or by email at

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