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Convincing consumers to embrace a device which could raise prices and have false positives is challenging

Alcohol, humanity's favorite social lubricant, is an ever controversial research topic with some calling it the deadliest drug, and others pointing to studies that suggest moderate alcohol consumption enhances learning (perhaps the real-life version of the "Ballmer curve").  But one thing that most can agree on is that intoxication and cars are a dangerous mixture.

I. NHTSA: Five Years to Commercializing Driver Intoxication Detection

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) -- an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) -- has been working a coalition of manufacturers (the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS)) to produce an advanced in-car sensor that would refuse to start the vehicle if it detects the driver is intoxicated.  

The system they're developing is dubbed "Driver Alcohol Detection System for safety" (DADSS) -- perhaps a well intentioned play on the nation's largest anti-drunk driving activist organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

Drunk driver
The government and activist groups want to make sure a drunk driver can never get in a car and drive in the first place. [Image Source: CNN]

After nearly $40 USD in federal funding ($5.8M USD in 2008, $2M USD/yr. in 2009-2010, and ~$10M USD in 2011-2013) and five years of progress, that project is approaching the end of its first phase, and a technology demonstration has been promised.

In a letter to the CEO of top automotive manufacturers, NHTSA Chief David Strickland said that significant progress had been made on the private-public collaboration.  With two "very, very effective" prototypes from separate OEM partners produced, he believes a commercial product is within reach.  On how soon we will see such a device, he comments, "We probably have another five years of work to go.  It will be available as an option by manufacturers, and I think it’s a real way forward."

II. Motivations

Why build such a device?  The motivation is actually surprisingly straightforward.

Government statistics from 2010 reveal that drunk driving is the number one crime in the country, with 1.4 million driving under the influence (DUI) or driving while intoxicated (DWI) arrests a year.  Of fatal car crashes approximately half of the drivers involved were under the influence of alcohol or other psychoactive substances.  

To try to curb drunk driving, the government by 2009 had instituted nearly 150,000 in-car interlock systems [source] to habitual DUI offenders.  An interlock system won't allow a vehicle to start without having the user perform a breathalyzer test.

Drunk Driving
Drunk driving remains the nation's most common crime and a key factor in roughly half of car crashes. [Image Source: DWI Blog]

While functional, interlock systems are far from perfect.  First, if a non-drunk passenger (or even companion riding separately) blows into them, they can start the car, even if the driver is drunk.  Second, they are too expensive and invasive to deploy to all vehicles. 

One solution would be to have a more general alcohol detector that scanned the entire air content of the car, but again this would be problematic as drunk passengers could trigger a false positive.  And such a solution would be more expensive, likely, as it would require the detection of smaller quantities of airborne alcohol versus a system that isolates a driver's breath (e.g. the interlock).

From a big picture perspective, the number of people in the U.S. still choosing to drive drunk and being able to do so clearly illustrates that the deterrents to date -- DUI fines, prison time, and in-car prevention systems -- aren't stopping drunk drivers often enough.

II. Show Me The Prototype

The NHTSA/industry program launched in 2008, with $5.8M USD in federal funding.  It has focused on two different emerging technologies -- near-infrared (NIR) tissue spectroscopy and distant breath spectroscopy.  The former technique would require the driver to press their finger against a location.  Eventually this could perhaps be embedded into the steering wheel.  The latter method would be remote, requiring no direct contact as it measures the amount of alcohol in the exhaled breath from a distance.  Differentiating between driver and passenger intoxication, though, requires strategic sensor placement, multiple sensors, and filtering algorithms.

After five years Congress is still funding the program, but desires some sort of results.  Mr. Strickland has promised a working prototype will be demonstrated by the end of the year.  He comments, "A tangible result of that work will be demonstrated later this year, when a research vehicle including both touch-based and breath-based detection technologies is available for further evaluation.  I have referred to it as a ‘moonshot’ for traffic safety with initially long odds but the potential for dramatically powerful results if we are successful."

Drunk driving TruTouchWorking prototypes are expensive, bulky, intrusive, and can yield false positives.  (The DADSS "TruTouch" tisue NIR spectroscopy system is shown.)

If the NHTSA and ACTS can pull of a successful demo, they next have to plan out and agree to a path for Phase II -- the path to commercialization.  MADD National President Jan Withers praised the progress thus far, stating, "Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, DADSS for short, is our hope for the future to ELIMINATE drunk driving."

That said, figuring out a route to commercialization requires many parties -- automakers, insurers, consumers, civil liberties groups, activist groups (e.g. MADD), and the government -- to all agree to a route they can all live with.  Balancing often competing interests (e.g. the desire to reduce auto fatalities versus the consumer demand to not have a device that produces false positives or raises vehicle prices) makes this project a "moonshot" indeed.  But it'll be interesting to watch what the coalition brings to the table as Phase I concludes.

Sources: The Detroit News, DADSS [homepage], [white paper]

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Better idea
By inighthawki on 8/21/2013 6:24:00 PM , Rating: 2
Harsher penalties for those who drink and drive to actually encourage them to not do so or be at high risk for harsh penalties. I bet if most people learned that drinking and driving landed you 10 years minimum (random example) in a prison cell they would think twice about trying (or have foresight ahead of time to help ensure they don't while their judgment is impaired).

RE: Better idea
By toffty on 8/21/2013 6:48:11 PM , Rating: 1
Actually making penalties harsher does nothing to curb crime especially the mentally impaired such as those who just consumed alcohol.

RE: Better idea
By ritualm on 8/21/2013 10:10:36 PM , Rating: 2
So how does installing a mandatory breathalyzer device inside the car and tie it to its interlock, curb driving with DUI?

You haven't answered that question yourself, while claiming harsher penalties won't work. How hypocritical and contradictory.

RE: Better idea
By Monkey's Uncle on 8/22/2013 10:10:01 AM , Rating: 2
Did you actually read what you wrote there?

To start your car:
Test for alcohol (however they decide to implement that) equipment is built into the car's ignition system.

-> You Pass, ignition system activates and you can drive.

-> You Fail and ignition stays locked out. You don't drive.

While it would certainly curb DUI, it will only do so by becoming a very invasive part of everybody's use of that car whether they are a soccer mom or redneck moonshine runner.

The thing about these interlocks is this: They will be hacked/bypassed about 20 minutes after they start appearing in cars with instructions how to do it posted on the internet that same day.

RE: Better idea
By ritualm on 8/22/2013 12:40:29 PM , Rating: 2
I'm fully aware what such a system does, at the same time I'm unconvinced that installing this boondoggle on every new future car sold will reduce driving with DUI.

It won't do a damned thing. We'll still get DUI incidents all over the country, except these mandatory breathalyzer systems will be involved, and oftentimes proven ineffective.

A few years down the road, a new whistleblower would tell us those are mobile NSA information "collection" systems (replete with phone-home "features" and all) masquerading as BACs...

RE: Better idea
By tayb on 8/21/13, Rating: 0
RE: Better idea
By inighthawki on 8/21/2013 11:21:46 PM , Rating: 2
While that is true, there are plenty of crimes that are committed simply because there is almost no penalty for it. Take something like j-walking. A tiny offense and even most cops won't care, but if suddenly the penalty for j-walking is a year in prison and a $10,000 fine, there may be a lot more people who are going to think twice about saving the extra 10 seconds by not waiting for the walk signal.

On the same note, in many places the penalty for drunk driving is pathetic. Some people get as little as a tiny fine and a slap on the wrist, maybe some points on their license. Oh dear. 3+ offenses until they finally actually do something about it.

And even if harsher penalties does not provide less incentive to do it, it's not only far less intrusive (especially for people who dont drink and drive!) than this proposed plan, but in all honestly the people who do drink and drive deserve a harsher punishment anyway. It's not the kind of thing you do by accident, and in doing so you put many peoples' safety at risk.

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