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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 Reclaimer77 on 8/21/2013 6:52:46 PM , Rating: 2
I'm not going to get my panties in a wad this early.

At least you admit you're wearing them, that's the important thing :)

You don't have a right to drive. It's a privilege. I don't agree with forcing these into cars but if they did decide to do that it would not be violating any of your rights.

That a pretty tenuous argument. I know we've just accepted that the fed has the right to force any equipment into passenger vehicles they see fit, but do they really have the right to go THIS far?

I say no.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Reflex on 8/21/2013 7:03:57 PM , Rating: 2
What is tenuous about it? No other rights require a person to get a license to exercise them. Driving is not enumerated in the constitution, nor were any rights to existing methods of travel enumerated in the constitution when it was written.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Reclaimer77 on 8/21/2013 7:15:21 PM , Rating: 2
No other rights require a person to get a license to exercise them.

Uhhh marriage? But we call that a civil right don't we? In fact it's being called the civil rights issue of our time by most.

Anyway the issue isn't about the right to drive. This is about equipment in vehicles.

Driving is not enumerated in the constitution, nor were any rights to existing methods of travel enumerated in the constitution when it was written.

Well since YOU brought it up, we have an expressed freedom of travel in the Constitution. It doesn't have to enumerate the methods of travel, those are implied to be rights. So no, it doesn't have to say I can "drive" for me to have the right to drive.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Reflex on 8/21/2013 8:43:30 PM , Rating: 2
Marriage does not require a license unless one wishes to avail oneself of enumerated benefits of marriage. Lots of communities eschew civil marriage licenses and marry as per their religious beliefs, and this is legal.

One cannot reject the requirement to procure a license before driving without committing a crime, however.

And yes, we do have a freedom to travel. But there is no method that is spelled out as an absolute right, and other rights absolutely trample on this right, such as property rights(I do not have the freedom to travel across your land, or even government land, for instance).

BTW, are you a supporter of implied rights in the constitution? I ask because that is a very progressive opinion. Most right wingers I know look only at explicit rights, not implied rights, as they feel that implied rights are a slippery slope. "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" for instance imply an awful lot, such as government provided healthcare...

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By Reclaimer77 on 8/21/2013 9:27:17 PM , Rating: 2
I'm pretty sure there are states that require a marriage license. Anyway this isn't really about marriage. I think it's enough to say that driving isn't the only area where the state issues permits/licenses to exercise some right.

And yes, we do have a freedom to travel. But there is no method that is spelled out as an absolute right

There is NO NEED to spell out a method! Why don't you understand that?

So let me get this right, you think I'm "implying" something by assuming the Founders didn't intent for us to walk with our two feet from state to state? That's absurd!!

Use SOME common sense here, please.

I'm just really tired of this "driving isn't a right" mantra being parroted as a justification for telling me I have to put up with anything in my car that someone in Washington thought up.

"Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" for instance imply an awful lot, such as government provided healthcare...

That's in the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution...

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By wookie1 on 8/22/2013 12:38:10 PM , Rating: 2
What's all this about "implied" and "explicit" rights in the constitution? It's purpose is to define the role of the government and limit its power. Your rights are explicitly unlimited according to the constitution.

There's quite a long road of twisted logic to get from "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" to "government provided healthcare". These two concepts seem to be contradictory, government is the opposite of liberty, which is why the framers placed such limits on it.

RE: The big brother/nanny state
By wookie1 on 8/22/2013 12:32:41 PM , Rating: 2
You're backwards on how the constitution works. We have unlimited natural rights. The constitution does not grant us any rights. It defines and limits the power that the government is allowed to have, especially the federal government which is supposed to be limited to the powers enumerated in the constitution and anything not enumerated is left to the states. The reason that the bill of rights was added is that the framers felt that these protections were the most important and often the first things that a government would try to do with its power. The federal government actually has no right to regulate my driving. That's why they give states money for highways, so they can then attach conditions like speed limits and drinking age in order for the states to get the money.

By bill.rookard on 8/21/2013 7:29:00 PM , Rating: 2
Gotta agree with you Reclaimer, this is going a bit far. First up, for those who have broken the law, in order for them to earn the right to drive back, they must jump through the hoops. I don't think anyone here disagrees with that.

My problem exists in that by making these devices mandatory, and making me pay for them, you've already assumed that I am guilty of doing exactly the same thing with no proof whatsoever.

In addition, where is the line where the government is going to say (since they'll have control over this) you cannot drive. Legal limit? Now what if that changes? Update the car? How about the slippery slope (that the government would NEVER allow to happen /s) where the tolerance is dropped to having just ONE drink means you're stuck somewhere. Go to a nice restaurant, have one glass of vino, and you're stuck until some arbitrary limit is passed and your car (ne: NHTSA) allows you to go home.

I see so many problems with this, it'll just be a complete cluster....

"Intel is investing heavily (think gazillions of dollars and bazillions of engineering man hours) in resources to create an Intel host controllers spec in order to speed time to market of the USB 3.0 technology." -- Intel blogger Nick Knupffer

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