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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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RE: The big brother/nanny state
By shmmy on 8/21/2013 6:51:46 PM , Rating: -1
Pretty much expected that reaction for you reclaimer...

Driving is a privilege not a right. If you dont like it dont buy a new car, or take the bus. (I wont be buying a new car but not for the reason you may think) :P

Drunk drivers kill more people in one year then terrorist have killed since 1960. We started two wars and killed thousands of innocent people over terrorism. I guess thats OK since its not in the US? (people that have a clue understand that the war was not started because of the deaths terrorism created. They were started because the wealthy people in the country who fiance our government didnt like the market instability that terrorism created) Just opened a huge bag of worms with that statement lol

Back on topic
Since I have a life Reclaimer and I dont just sit home looking up big words to use on internet posts :P (just messing wit ya)

This topic hits home for me. I live in a populated area that does not have more cows than people. Also I am bit of a drinker, and sometimes a driver. It is one thing to say "ok im not gonna drive later if I drink" then get in your car anyway and drive because "im not that drunk" I also know about 5 people with DWI's some still drink and drive, some make their significant others drive. So I think I have a decent concept of why these are needed. I am all for it as long as the cost is acceptable. We give billions of dollors to oil companies "because finding oil is hard" so why not help to save thousands of peoples lives for a few million?

Its called looking past 3 feed in front of you. (something that many conservatives have a problem with) Yes there is a cost, but the long term gain is much more important.

Thankfully we didnt put driving in the bill of rights! :P

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By ClownPuncher on 8/21/2013 7:19:40 PM , Rating: 5
Why not just educate people about the dangers of alcohol instead of punishing everyone? That you, admittedly, drink and sometimes drive is not my burden to bear.

What's so difficult about the idea of personal accountability? I don't ever drink and drive, why bother people like me with this mess? The whole idea of the burden of society was invented to subvert individual rights in a republic.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Jeffk464 on 8/21/2013 7:56:28 PM , Rating: 1
Nope, but you can get hit by somebody that does.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Monkey's Uncle on 8/21/2013 9:47:12 PM , Rating: 4
You can get hit by somebody that falls asleep at the wheel, gets too involved in sexting on their phone or is a habitual Ambien user (anti-insomnia drug that can cause sleep driving) too.

Alcohol may be the #1 cause of lethal crashes that can be proven but other forms of impaired driving are just as, or even more dangerous to everyone caught up in it. And it is a LOT more common! Ask the truck driver that has been driving his rig for the past 24 hours without sleep that jackknifes his rig and takes out every car within 50 feet of him. He's not drunk, but he is just as impaired as a drunk. Ask the guy sexting with his girlfriend while barreling down the passing lane of the freeway at 80mph.

Cars are big, dangerous machines. When they get out of control, for whatever reason, they are worse than a loaded gun to anyone around them.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Mint on 8/22/2013 1:28:58 AM , Rating: 3
Sleeping may well be something we address. A few manufacturers have put sleep sensors in cars, and given how smartphones have made cameras and SoCs so cheap, it could become a standard soon.

But sleeping at the wheel or ambien or sexting while driving isn't as prevalent as drunk driving, and it's silly to say we shouldn't bother with the latter simply because there are other ways that crashes happen.

If we can make an accurate, convenient, and cheap alcohol detector, then making it standard will be a good initiative. Many people die from others being drunk.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By FITCamaro on 8/21/2013 11:22:10 PM , Rating: 2
Don't you know we need to design the world so that people can't possibly hurt themselves or others?

By ClownPuncher on 8/22/2013 11:50:58 AM , Rating: 2
Shoot, I forgot.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Spuke on 8/21/2013 7:21:21 PM , Rating: 2
We started two wars and killed thousands of innocent people over terrorism.
Jesus Christ! Really? Why does the Iraq war have to be brought up in every single fucking discussion no matter what it is. What does that have to do with this? I'm really tired of the extremist viewpoints here. This not TECH this is politics. This site really should split and form another site for political discussion and the other for tech. I'm interested in tech not BS politics or social activism. I'm tired of this shit and going on a sabbatical. I'll try back in a few months to see if anything has changed. If it hasn't I'm requesting my username to be removed. This is just plain BS.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Reclaimer77 on 8/21/2013 7:38:26 PM , Rating: 2
Awww man. Leaving me alone with these nutjobs? :(

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Monkey's Uncle on 8/21/2013 9:00:47 PM , Rating: 1
I got your back.

Sounds to me like Mr "drunk drivers killed more people than terrorists" is the kind of person that needs crap like this in their car since he as all but confessed to doing it.

I for one don't frigging need that junk in my car and I sure as shit ain't gonna pay a car maker to put it in.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Reclaimer77 on 8/21/2013 9:29:57 PM , Rating: 2

I love how I'm getting more grief for my stance here, than him who flat out admitted he drinks and drives!!!

Sounds to me like Mr "drunk drivers killed more people than terrorists" is the kind of person that needs crap like this in their car since he as all but confessed to doing it.

LOL yeah you seem to be the only other person here who's picked up on that...

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Manch on 8/22/2013 6:25:06 PM , Rating: 1
Its sad that you get more grief than an admitted drunk driver does. I was hit by a drunk driver in 08 while walking home. Fractured my skull lost a bit of eye socket, peeled the skin off the side of my face, wrecked my shoulder, took chunks out of my arms and legs and destroyed my knees. I just had knee surgery because of it last October(avoided it as long as I could). It's caused a lot of ongoing issues that i have to deal with until I kick the bucket.

Even after that I dont want this as a mandatory device in vehicles. Does anybody think this crap will stop them? Of course it wont! Extreme fines, loss of driving privileges, jail, ad all the other shit hasnt stopped them.

The only person responsible for my injuries was the drunk asshole speeding thru my neighborhood that hit me.

Why do people think that when some asshole does somthing we have to encroach on law abiding citizens rights with intrusive laws, regulations etc. Its ridiculous. The concept of personal responsibility seems to be lost on people.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By retrospooty on 8/22/2013 8:01:42 AM , Rating: 2
I'm interested in tech not BS politics or social activism. I'm tired of this shit and going on a sabbatical. I'll try back in a few months to see if anything has changed.

No man, if you quit because some people are stupid then you have to quit the entire world, because they are everywhere. The more voices of reason the better.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By FITCamaro on 8/21/2013 11:24:15 PM , Rating: 2
So your friends are idiots so that means we all need to be punished.

And we don't give billions to oil companies. They have tax breaks like other companies.

But good to see those college professors did their job.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Manch on 8/22/13, Rating: 0
"Nowadays you can buy a CPU cheaper than the CPU fan." -- Unnamed AMD executive

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