The rise of autonomous vehicles could halt drink driving but enable binge drinking, a new study has found.
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New research has found one third of Australians would drink more alcohol if they had access to an autonomous (self-driving) car.

In a study published on March 2020, researchers from Perth's Curtin University surveyed 1334 Australian adults of legal driving age to ascertain how their access to autonomous vehicles (AVs) could impact their alcohol consumption habits.

The results suggested that while driverless cars are likely to reduce drink-driving rates, they could also lead to greater levels of binge drinking.

Of the respondents, 49 per cent reported being likely to use an autonomous car after consuming alcohol, while 37 per cent reported being likely to consume more alcohol if using an autonomous car afterwards.

Researchers said a lower age, more frequent alcohol consumption, a positive attitude to autonomous vehicles and a preference for using 'ride-share' AVs were all associated with a greater likelihood of engaging in these behaviours.

Study co-author Professor Simone Pettigrew said once autonomous vehicles become readily available, "they could be used as a means of facilitating out-of-home alcohol consumption and more frequent bouts of heavy drinking".

“Because the introduction of the vehicles will likely bring both positive and negative health effects, this represents a complex challenge for policymakers charged with reducing alcohol-related harms," Professor Pettigrew said.

"A particular challenge will be the need to encourage the use of autonomous vehicles after drinking without encouraging drinking per se.

“Given that people’s exposure to AVs has been very limited to date, more research will be needed as these vehicles become available on Australian roads, to assess whether people’s drinking behaviours actually change in the manner they expect.”

Fortunately, policymakers have a while to get out ahead of the societal repercussions, given those in the automotive industry predict mass-produced, readily available driverless cars remain a way off.

Speaking to CarAdvice late last year, James Kuffner, CEO of Toyota’s Advanced Research Institute (TRI), said Level 5 autonomous cars – or those "equivalent to a human driver under any weather condition, any traffic, with a map, anywhere in the world” – were "not even close".

“Let me just be really clear: nobody is even close at that level,” Kuffner said.

“If you say level 4, now you're adding restrictions. You’re saying it’s geofenced, it’s lighter traffic, lower speeds, good weather. Then the answer is today, we could do that if we restricted things. Even dedicated lanes, good weather, light traffic, good maps, we could deploy that today.

“So the real question is, how much are you restricting it and whether or not that's providing value.”