The Fuse

Beyond Fuel Savings: Autonomous Vehicles to Reduce Drunk-Driving Deaths

by Matt Piotrowski | August 09, 2016

Drinking and driving has been a public health crisis for decades, and while the data has shown some improvement, drunk driving continues to cause a significant loss of life on American roadways

Every year, thousands of Americans die in alcohol-related traffic deaths, and millions admit to driving under the influence. One-third of all car fatalities involve drunk drivers and more than 3,000 arrests are made daily because of motorists driving after consuming too much alcohol. Drinking and driving has been a public health crisis for decades, and while the data has shown some improvement, drunk driving continues to cause a significant loss of life on American roadways. Thankfully, technology is offering a solution—growth in ride-sharing services and autonomous vehicles can help combat the problem, and hopefully over time make drinking and driving deaths and arrests a thing of the past.

“This [autonomy reducing drinking and driving] is a serious topic that has great social, public health and safety as well as economic and financial implications across multiple sectors,” said researchers at Morgan Stanley in a recent report looking in depth at the potential for ride-sharing and autonomy to reduce alcohol deaths on the roads.

drunk driving

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to reshape longstanding transportation paradigms while also slashing fuel consumption. But looking past energy and convenience, another top benefit of driverless cars will come in the form of improved safety, nearly eliminating human error as a cause of vehicle collisions, whether drivers are sober or not. According to Morgan Stanley, alcohol consumption and car ownership tend to be correlated with wealth, creating overlap between those who drink alcohol and those who drive. Against this backdrop, opportunities to neutralize drinking and driving are ripe.

drunk driving autonomous vehicles

In addition to reducing drunk driving deaths, the hospitality industry stands to benefit from autonomous cars. With consumers able to drink more alcohol without limitations imposed by the need to drive home, many in the restaurant, brewery, and pub industries could see a meaningful uptick in sales. This will be in addition to opportunities in the transportation and technology industries as new markets and business models emerge around shared, autonomous mobility.

 uber drunk driving

Ride sharing already making a difference with drunk driving

Last year, The Los Angeles Times ran a story with the headline “It’s Confirmed: Uber Lets You Drink More,” noting in the piece that party-goers out at night don’t need designated drivers since they can hail a ride through apps like Uber and Lyft instead of driving themselves home. The story quotes a general manager of a local restaurant who says “the idea of the designated driver never really worked because nobody ever wanted to do it.”

Ride-sharing has changed decision-making among those who drink and can’t rely on public transportation to get home. This is good news, no matter what one thinks of alcohol consumption in general, given the safety implications. While the research is still new on this subject, there are encouraging signs that ride hailing and sharing services are already reducing the number of DUIs, even without autonomy. For instance, in San Diego, the city with the highest number of DUIs per capita in the U.S., the number fell some 20 percent in the first two years after Uber began operations in the city.

Affordable on-demand transportation services have the potential to cut drunk driving deaths by almost 4 percent, with the introduction of UberX—the cheaper service from the app—making a big difference.

Other cities have seen similar declines. In a report from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Uber from last year, research shows that demand for Uber ticked up at closing time for bars and provided surveys indicating that having the flexibility of hailing a ride has made for better decision-making among those out at bars and clubs. The Times article highlighted another study, this one from Temple University’s Fox School of Business. It said affordable on-demand transportation services have the potential to cut drunk driving deaths by almost 4 percent, with the introduction of UberX—the cheaper service from the app—making a big difference. Even though the research has yet to be followed up with bigger studies, “valid conclusions could be drawn from the data,” Brad Greenwood, a Temple researcher said. However, 4 percent is a relatively small improvement—ubiquitous adoption of autonomous vehicles could likely cause a far more substantial decline in drunk driving fatalities.

Companies that benefit

When someone is able to get a ride through an on-demand service or an autonomous vehicle, staying out later to enjoy last call or having extra drinks with meals would be an easier decision. A number of companies will benefit from this extra consumption, from those that sell alcohol to automakers that are ahead of the curve with ride-sharing and autonomy. Morgan Stanley, in its research, highlights a number of beneficiaries of the shared and autonomous economy.

autonomous cars and drink driving

“Restaurant stocks stand to benefit as alcohol sales account for 10 to 20 percent of revenues and are a high-margin business for most casual diners,” Morgan Stanley said.

A number of firms that produce alcoholic beverages will of course be winners. The researchers also point out that BJ’s Restaurants (a brew pub), Buffalo Wild Wings (a sports bar), and Brinker International (famous for owning Chili’s) could stand to gain the most from patrons being flexible to drink more. “Restaurant stocks stand to benefit as alcohol sales account for 10 to 20 percent of revenues and are a high-margin business for most casual diners,” Morgan Stanley said.

In the automaker space, Mobileye, Tesla, Delphi, Continental and Autoliv are listed as beneficiaries because of their work in integrating autonomous and semi-autonomous technology.

A safe ride home

There are, of course, a lot downsides of increased alcohol consumption, which include abusive behavior, health problems, and rising healthcare costs. Morgan Stanley points out these problems and notes that its report is not intended to encourage more alcohol consumption but instead make a quantitative assessment on the benefits to society from changes in the transportation and technology sectors. In the U.S., motorists driving after consuming alcohol is a dark reality, and will likely continue to be so. The epidemic may not ever fully go away, but the transition to increased use of on-demand transportation services and autonomous vehicles have the potential to significantly change the narrative in the area.

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