war on the rocks

The Future of Drinking and Driving

January 12, 2016

Throughout my life I have been privy to both sides of the story on alcohol: from the cheerful celebratory toasts and nights of rowdy dancing at bars, weddings, and house parties; to the depressive realities of arguments, fights, blackouts, and unruly behavior.

Many people fall into the “ignorance is bliss” camp when it comes to the dangers of alcohol. However, growing up in a family of big drinkers, having friends who are known to indulge in the hooch, and serving guests from behind the bar, I intimately understand the inherent dangers that such a powerful intoxicant can create. These are most salient when it comes to getting behind the wheel of a two-ton machine made of plastic, glass, and steel that can reach triple-digit speeds. With the advent of new and exciting technology and innovation, the black cloud of drunk driving could soon dissipate from over the heads of the imbibing community, and any innocent bystanders who might be caught in the storm’s path.

Two of the biggest names in futuristic technology and innovation, Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil, have both made predictions that self-driving cars will become commonplace within just a couple years. In many places around the world, there are already driverless cars on the road safely travelling and avoiding obstacles. Since the start of Google’s driverless car project in 2009, over 1,000,000 miles have been driven in “autonomous mode” (where only software is controlling the vehicle). This is equivalent to about 75 years of one person driving a car. This figure is amazing in and of itself, but the impressive part is that of the 12 minor accidents these vehicles have been involved in, not one was caused by the autonomous vehicle alone (the causes were either other cars on the road with human drivers or the autonomous vehicle being driven in “manual mode” with its own human behind the wheel).

This month, General Motors and the ride-hailing service Lyft struck a $500-million investment deal with a network of autonomous vehicles as the main force driving the arrangement. Uber, Lyft’s main competitor and a company valued 14 times higher, is opening its own research center to study autonomous vehicles in Pittsburgh. Not wanting to be left behind, 15 companies invested to build a fake city in Michigan to study autonomous vehicle programs. I could go on about the way this technology is captivating automakers, but the important question you’re probably asking is: What does this have to do with alcohol?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one-third of all traffic deaths (31 percent) is related to alcohol impairment. In 2013 alone, over 10,000 people were killed due to alcohol-related auto fatalities. This alone is a solemn and heartbreaking thought. In 2012 over 1.3 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence, but the number of self-reported episodes of drunk driving was closer to the tune of 121 million. This means the arrest rate for this crime is a paltry 1 percent. It is illogical to think that current enforcement methods are sufficient in stopping alcohol-related vehicle fatalities. The list of scary statistics is never-ending when it comes to getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle while impaired.

Instead of brushing this horrendous problem under the rug when people make the decision to risk their safety and the well-being of innocent road-goers and bystanders, technology will have made the decision for us. New technologies are being created to stop human drivers from getting the vehicle in motion, such as the “Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS),” which monitors a driver’s blood-alcohol content through air filters and finger sensors and can be installed on currently available vehicles. Companies such as Google are driving past this stop-gap measure and predicting their own ready-to-use fully autonomous vehicles by 2020, which would completely take the decision and ability to drive away from any human operator, impaired or otherwise.

Musk’s Tesla has already released beta software allowing semi-autonomous driving on highways that crowd-sources observations and interventions from human operators to create a hive mind of information for all of the Model S vehicles equipped with autopilot software. Tesla imagines full autonomy from their vehicles before Google’s 2020 prediction. The reality is that real-world tests being done in autonomous vehicles contain sober manual operators in case of emergency, but if trends continue, especially in the case of Google’s fleet, there will be no steering wheel or pedals to take control of since they will be deemed unnecessary. This would take the human operator out of the equation completely, drunk or sober.

There are of course ethical questions that will arise when it comes to driverless cars, and plenty of fear mongering before they’ll be accepted as commonplace. I have heard arguments that usually stride in the direction of bystander safety and quick decision-making from humans who believe themselves to be more cognizant than a “robot.” For example, “what if the car swerved from debris in the road and crashed into a park killing several children?” This, of course, is a real possibility and shouldn’t be overlooked, but this is why more testing and learning is happening every day. But what about the 200 children that die every year from alcohol-related automobile accidents? Judging by the aforementioned real-world tests being done by Google, these accidents most likely never would have happened.

The incoming boon of futuristic autonomous vehicles will help decrease the stigma of a substance that is more dangerous than it has to be due to outside factors. Soon enough we will walk out of the bar with a few too many in our system and instead of trying to hail a cab, take public transportation, or, God forbid, get behind the wheel of a car, we will jump in the backseat of our own vehicle, slurring “go home, robot!” and be taken to our driveway in our own vehicle safe and sound. The resurgence of a pre-prohibition-style bartending, craft beer and liquor, and impressive local vineyards are all beautiful and amazing additions to our libationary desires, but they will all be in vain if we or our loved ones are not around to enjoy it because of one intoxicated decision.

It is our responsibility as writers to make sure our audience is safe while they are experimenting with recipes and techniques, and that goes double for bartenders and servers who have to decide if the next round is the last. That being said, our current methods simply are not good enough, as the aforementioned statistics vividly display; just as we have evolved into better bartenders, we need to evolve into better decision-makers, even if that means we’re not the ones making the decision.

 

Andre Gziryan is a Soviet-born American who prefers G.I. Joe to Uncle Joe. He is a former barman who currently works as an international trade analyst at the Department of Commerce. What he lacks in military knowledge he makes up for with a love of all things creative and spirituous.

 

Photo credit: Norbert Aepli