Could new car technology offer a solution for a scourge that kills nearly 10,000 Americans each year – drunken driving?
The Department of Transportation unveiled the latest steps toward developing anti-drunken-driving technology that would allow a car to detect drivers impaired by alcohol and stop them from turning on the car.
Auto safety officials demonstrated a new test vehicle equipped with special touch pads that can instantly measure whether a driver has been drinking. The technology, which could exist on the steering wheel or the starter button of keyless ignitions, could become a reality for consumers as soon as the end of the decade.
A competing system being developed captures drivers’ breath and instantly analyzes it for alcohol content. Research into both systems is being funded by auto regulators and a consortium of automakers as part of what is known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety program.
The goal is for at least one of the two options – or both, possibly working together – to be ready by 2020 and available as optional equipment on most vehicles sold in the United States.
Jeff Michael, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s associate administrator for research and program development, said that to get there, the new technology had to be “highly accurate, very fast and completely passive.”
That is because it should remain largely invisible to drivers – activating only when necessary to prevent a car from operating. And when that decision is made, it has to be right, because sober drivers – or those below the legal limit – will not have much patience for errors that mistakenly shut down their vehicles.
Michael said early adopters could include parents of teenage drivers and others looking to take special precautions. The goal, though, is to have the technology widely deployed in a range of new cars and trucks.
Traditional Breathalyzer units, used by police officers during traffic stops and also installed in the cars of some convicted drunken drivers, are commonly known to have issues with accuracy.
They also require a lot of effort: A deep, sustained breath into the plastic tube is needed to capture a sample, and even then multiple attempts are sometimes required to get a reading.
Bud Zaouk, director of transportation solutions at QinetiQ North America, a defense technology company, is running the research lab in Cambridge, Mass., where the NHTSA’s project is based. He said the new breath-based system in development would avoid those problems: “You just breathe normally in its direction.”
To make the new systems work, researchers are using a host of technologies, such as infrared light and sensors.
According to the highway safety agency, the touch-based technology analyzes alcohol found beneath the skin’s surface. It shines an infrared light through the skin to measure the alcohol content in tiny blood vessels in a person’s finger or palm, and it can tell the difference between a person and an inanimate object.
The sensors could be embedded in the steering wheel, for instance, since the driver is already going to be grasping the wheel. A simpler and more affordable option from an engineering perspective is to have the stop-start ignition button double as the alcohol-detection touch pad. But that raises another question: What stops someone else from pushing the button instead?
To combat that, researchers are exploring the use of a front-seat “driver presence detector,” which would generate a signal that works in conjunction with the button to ensure that the person pressing it is the driver rather than a passenger or some other person.