In the not-too-distant future, your car may be able to detect the driver's blood alcohol concentration and, if it's over the legal limit, prevent the car from being started.
A public-private partnership is working to develop noninvasive technologies that can nearly instantly register a driver's BAC in the moments before the driver turns the ignition.
While in-vehicle alcohol detectors exist today, they're primarily installed in the cars of people who've been convicted of driving while intoxicated. Alcohol ignition interlock systems also require the driver to blow into the device in order to measure BAC.
Future technologies are expected to be much faster and less intrusive, requiring no active involvement from the driver. Essentially, the technology will be invisible to drivers, so that sober drivers wouldn't be inconvenienced.
IN PICTURES: Prototype alcohol-detection systems
"Forty percent of the population in this country doesn't drink, and many more don't drink and drive. We certainly don't want to inconvenience those people," said Susan Ferguson of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS). "When [sober drivers] get in their cars, we want them to be able to start the ignition and drive away just as quickly as they can today."
ACTS is shepherding a cooperative research venture called Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS). Launched in 2008, DADSS is a five-year, $10 million program supported by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and more than a dozen car manufacturers. Its charter is to develop advanced in-vehicle alcohol detection technologies that could be suitable for all drivers, not just convicted offenders, and the costs are split 50-50 between the government and the automobile industry.
In addition to technical hurdles that must be surmounted, the program faces plenty of opposition, not surprisingly, from individuals and groups concerned about privacy, unwanted oversight and the likelihood of imperfect technology.
"We understand that the public policy challenges are going to be certainly as much, if not more challenging than the technology," said Ferguson, who spoke recently at an event sponsored by the University of Minnesota's Center for Transportation Studies.
But the technology is still in the early stages of development, and there are no plans to make its implementation mandatory, Ferguson stressed. "This is a voluntary effort. It's not a regulatory effort," she said. "At the point where manufacturers are able and willing to put it on their cars, we hope that we have a market that's interested."
Meanwhile, DADSS regularly meets with stakeholder groups to discuss its work and has scheduled a series of focus groups across the country to hear how the public feels about future in-vehicle alcohol detection technologies. National surveys are also planned. "We're asking all the time about people's concerns, and I can tell you, there are a lot of them," Ferguson said.
While it irons out its public affairs challenges, the group continues to make technological progress: DADSS has identified potential technologies, awarded contracts, and tested early prototypes. The next stage of prototype development is set to begin in the next month or so.
How tech can help
In 2009, 10,839 people in the U.S. died in crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers (accounting for 32% of all traffic–related deaths). Despite tougher laws and greater enforcement efforts, most impaired drivers are never arrested.
"The most conservative estimate that I've seen suggests that you can drive 50 times - once every weekend for a year - and really only have a chance of being arrested once," Ferguson said. Less conservative estimates put that number in the hundreds, even more than 1,000 times. "The fact of the matter is there are many people out there who are drinking and driving who've never been caught or convicted of drinking and driving. We're never going to solve this with the tools we have right now."
DADSS envisions technology that could prevent anyone from operating a motor vehicle if their BAC exceeds 0.08%, which is the legal limit in all 50 states.
In the first stage of the program, 18 technology providers responded to a request for information and eight companies were invited to submit proposals for developing a working prototype of their technology concepts. In the fall of 2009, DADSS awarded three companies with $400,000 each to continue developing their prototypes: Autoliv Development of Vargarda, Sweden; Alcohol Countermeasure Systems (ACS) of Toronto, Canada; and TruTouch Technologies of Albuquerque, N.M.
During the first phase of the prototype development process, the three companies worked on their respective technology concepts, which fall into two categories: distant spectroscopy, which uses infrared light sensors placed around the car to analyze a driver's breath; and tissue spectroscopy, which estimates BAC by measuring the skin's absorption of light.
"The prototypes didn't have to look like the final technology. We were trying to see how close they could come to our accuracy, precision and time-of-measurement requirements," Ferguson said. "We weren't anticipating that they would meet our requirements, but we were hoping that they certainly would be better than today's technology."
Autoliv developed a system to measure alcohol from the exhaled breath of the driver using non-dispersive infrared technology. Concentrations of carbon dioxide are used to measure dilution of the driver's breath. In this way, no physical contact with the driver's mouth is required, so there's no need for a mouthpiece. The tricky part is placing sensors to ensure that breath samples are taken from the driver, not other passengers.
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The ACS prototype also took a breath-based approach, using external cavity quantum cascade laser (ECqcL) technology developed by Daylight Solutions. ECqcL sensors are designed to measure ethanol emanating from the driver by simultaneously measuring the concentration of alcohol and carbon dioxide in the cabin air near the driver.
TruTouch, meanwhile, developed a touch-based prototype using near-infrared (NIR) absorption spectroscopy to measure alcohol in skin tissue. It's designed to work by shining NIR light on the user's skin. The light scatters several millimeters through the user's skin before returning to the skin's surface, where it's collected by an optical touch pad and analyzed to determine tissue alcohol concentration, according to DADSS.
After receiving the early prototypes, DADSS began its own testing to verify how the three technology prototypes perform. Lab testing includes both bench tests in DADSS' laboratory and human subject tests performed with experts from McLean Hospital, a Waltham, Mass., facility affiliated with Harvard Medical School.
In the coming months, Phase 2 of the program, which includes vehicle interior mockups, will get underway. Autoliv and TruTouch have been invited to continue developing their technologies, while the ACS team that submitted a prototype has discontinued development of its DADSS technology.
"The Phase 2 development is ultimately going to result in research vehicles. Those will have the technology on board that we can demonstrate," Ferguson said. "We expect those technologies sometime in the first half of 2013."
Winning over the public
A study conducted in the fall of 2009 suggests many people are at least open to the idea of using in-vehicle technology to keep drunk drivers off the roads. Researchers affiliated with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in Arlington, Va., asked adults how they feel about having advanced alcohol detection technologies in all vehicles, and 64% said it's a good or very good idea, assuming the technology is reliable.
On the flip side, 30% think it's a bad idea. Among respondents who said it's a bad or very bad idea, one-third cited concerns about privacy or government interference, and 20% said not all drivers need screening.
DADSS is conducting its own research, too, to assess what in-vehicle alcohol detection technology solutions might prove the most acceptable to people and how they might best be implemented, Ferguson said. "We want to know if there are things we can do in the developmental process that will help with acceptance as we go forward."
As DADSS collects feedback from people and groups, their concerns will be factored into future developments. "We're going to go back through and review our findings and see whether we need to rethink some of our technology specifications and approaches," Ferguson said.
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