Can you put your car on autopilot to avoid a DUI charge? In this era of “driverless” vehicles, that’s the kind of question the courts are beginning to consider.

In January, the California Highway Patrol found a driver passed out – on the Bay Bridge, which links Oakland and San Francisco – behind the wheel of his Tesla.

When confronted by the Highway Patrol, the man claimed that he was not driving. Instead, he claimed to be using the autopilot feature, and he tried to explain that the car was driving itself.

The Highway Patrol officers were not buying the story.

The unnamed driver was jailed for suspicion of driving under the influence. A breathalyzer test measured his blood alcohol content (BAC) level at almost double the legal limit.

HOW ADVANCED IS AUTOPILOT TECHNOLOGY TODAY?

The vehicle was impounded, and the California Highway Patrol noted on Twitter that “it didn’t drive itself to the tow yard.”

According to Fortune magazine, “Tesla’s autopilot is not fully autonomous driving.” In other words, driving a Tesla while using the autopilot feature is still “driving.”

“Not all systems can do all things,” says National Transportation Safety Board spokesperson Bryan Thomas. “Autopilot requires full driver engagement at all times.”

And although Tesla had hoped to put a “fully automated” vehicle on the road by 2017, the company now tells us, “Autopilot … is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.”

WHAT WILL THE FUTURE HOLD?

But what about the future? In 2025 or 2030, will you be able to climb into your car, truck, or SUV after a night of drinking and say, “Drive me home.”

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, claims you will. It could be a good future: no traffic congestion, fewer accidents, and no more worries about how much you drink before getting into your car.

But will it really be that simple? How will law enforcement agencies and the courts handle driving under the influence in the future?

Will you even be considered a driver – or will “passenger” be the better description?

HOW WILL DRIVERLESS CARS REDUCE ACCIDENTS AND FATALITIES?

In the future, DUI-related injuries and deaths may drop substantially because of driverless cars, and that’s good news.

Autonomous vehicles will drive you to work, to school, even to the courthouse. Embedded sensors will monitor what adjacent vehicles are doing and make the necessary adjustments.

It’s predicted that in most cases, driverless vehicle technology will be able to prevent accidents before they happen. And that’s only part of the good news.

HOW WILL TRAFFIC STOPS BE MADE IN THE FUTURE?

Everyone will be safer because the police will no longer have to conduct high-speed chases. If you are suspected of a crime, the officers will be able to stop you simply – and electronically.

Driverless cars, we are told, will take us anywhere and everywhere – safely. And already, Nissan has created a car that will not let you drive it if you’re intoxicated.

It’s a “smart car” with alcohol-detection sensors. How do such sensors work?

When the steering wheel or the transmission shift knob detects alcohol in a driver’s palm sweat, the vehicle is immediately brought to a halt.

HOW IS “ACTUAL PHYSICAL CONTROL” OF A VEHICLE DEFINED?

So will driving under the influence be eliminated – a memory? Probably not. But one of the biggest legal issues in the future may be determining who is actually in “control” of a vehicle.

Most states cannot convict a defendant of driving under the influence unless that defendant was in “actual physical control” of the vehicle.

Courts consider these factors and others to determine if a driver was in actual physical control:

1. where the vehicle was parked
2. where the driver was seated
3. whether the vehicle was running
4. where the keys were

Depending on the answers to these questions, a driver who was not actually “driving” can still be charged with – and convicted of – driving under the influence.

IN WHAT SITUATIONS CAN YOU BE ARRESTED FOR DUI?

Drivers in California have been arrested for driving under the influence while walking, resting, sleeping by the side of the highway, in parking lots, and in highway rest areas.

Still, to win a DUI conviction against you, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that, at some point, you were actually in fact driving the vehicle while intoxicated.

But how will the courts handle driving under the influence cases involving self-driving vehicles?

WHAT QUESTIONS WILL COURTS FACE IN THE NEAR FUTURE?

Someday, probably soon, such a case will reach the courts. Self-driving, autonomous vehicles have been in development for years, and some are already in limited use.

But these questions still have to be answered:

1. How will the states verify that driverless cars are safe?
2. Will anyone actually be required to sit in what is now the “driver’s” seat?
3. Who will have access to a particular vehicle’s computer data?
4. Who will be held liable for accidents and injuries?

Privacy issues are a genuine concern. Current California law requires driverless vehicles to store computer data for accident reconstruction purposes.

Hackers are another concern. Could someone take charge of your vehicle by remote control?

IF YOU’RE CHARGED WITH DUI, WHAT’S THE FIRST THING YOU MUST DO?

Answers to all of these questions will emerge over time. But for now, getting the help of a good DUI lawyer is still a better idea than telling the police that your car was doing the driving.

If you are charged with driving under the influence in southern California, contact an experienced Orange County DUI attorney immediately – and get the legal help you need.

It may be impossible to prevent every behavior that is considered driving under the influence. Californians have been charged with DUI while riding golf carts, ATVs, and even horses.

Today, if you are charged with DUI in southern California – whether you’re on a horse or driving your own car on the 405 Freeway – you’ll need legal assistance at once. Get it.

HOW CAN A LAWYER HELP?

An experienced Orange County DUI attorney can review the details of your DUI arrest, provide the candid legal advice you need, and bring your DUI case to its best possible conclusion.

The future isn’t here just yet, but a driving under the influence arrest puts your own future at risk.

If you are arrested and charged with driving under the influence, get the legal help you need. Here in the present, that is your right.