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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: About time!
By toffty on 8/21/2013 7:12:47 PM , Rating: 1
When a friend of yours dies due to a drunk driver you can talk to me again on this matter. As of now you're just incredibly ignorant.

RE: About time!
By Reclaimer77 on 8/21/2013 7:23:26 PM , Rating: 2
I love it when people feel a personal tragedy has empowered them to be a spokesperson for an issue, and that they've been granted a moral imperative over every other living person.

I lost a friend to a drug overdose. Does that mean the war on drugs should continue even though it's been an abject failure? Well if you think not, I guess you're "ignorant" too.

I'm not impressed by your pain or anger, child. I don't need your exactly life experience to grasp an issue.

But thanks for your honesty. Now I know you're operating from an emotional standpoint, not a rational one, and can dismiss your view altogether.

RE: About time!
By toffty on 8/21/2013 7:44:18 PM , Rating: 2
I lost a friend to a drug overdose. Does that mean the war on drugs should continue even though it's been an abject failure? Well if you think not, I guess you're "ignorant" too.

Yes the war on drugs has been a failure and will continue to be in it's current form. The difference with your friend is that he did it to himself. It was his choice to take too many drugs and thus committed suicide.

RE: About time!
By Monkey's Uncle on 8/21/2013 9:24:25 PM , Rating: 2
The difference with your friend is that he did it to himself. It was his choice to take too many drugs and thus committed suicide.

And you think a drunk driver is not doing it to himself whenever he gets behind the wheel in that state? It was his choice to have a few drinks then get behind a wheel of his car. His choice.

Do you also think that if Reclaimer's friend that suicided had gotten behind the wheel of a car instead he would be in any different position than that drunk driver? The arguments are the same pal.

I'm sorry for your loss to a drunk driver. It sucks and you have my sympathy. However that sympathy does not extend to putting devices in my car that I simply do not need or want. To me it is simply just another point of failure and I am just not interested in enlisting my car as a nanny. I'm not 6 years old.

RE: About time!
By ATX22 on 8/22/2013 12:10:10 AM , Rating: 2
So a friend of yours died because of a drunk driver, it’s sad and it’s tragic.. but, it in no way makes you an authority on the matter.. Furthermore, using your friend as a soap box to stand on to further your own views on how things should be shows just what kind of friend you must be. Want to actually make a point? Let your argument stand on its own merit and not the grave of someone else. If you truly have something worth considering, you won’t have to take the emotional approach of pulling on the heart strings of others through anecdotal stories of tragedy in an attempt to sway their opinion in your favor.

It's MY choice to drive a vehicle on the road and risk an encounter with someone who is driving impaired, be it drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep, texting, or flat out inexperience at driving. EVERYONE who drives makes that choice, and sometimes this choice comes with negative consequences for people who haven’t done anything wrong.. but the choice was still THEIRS. If the risk of bodily injury or death is too great for you, you always have the option to CHOOSE to stay at home. For the rest of us, leave us alone and let us take our own risks in an unarguably dangerous world (even ignoring drunk drivers) instead of trying to force some absurd idea that you(or rather government) can save people from themselves. For crying out loud, let people live their own lives in their own pursuit of happiness and stop advocating that Uncle Sam should step in and “help” people that never asked for or required said help.

RE: About time!
By SAN-Man on 8/21/2013 7:24:03 PM , Rating: 2
So that makes your position justified? That justifies your insults and bad taste?

I suppose I can sling some insults too, since you don't want to have a discussion.

You are retarded and childish. I hope you get hit by a drunk driver.

RE: About time!
By ritualm on 8/21/2013 7:58:46 PM , Rating: 2
When a friend of yours dies due to a drunk driver you can talk to me again on this matter. As of now you're just incredibly ignorant.

Just because one of your friends is a victim of someone else's DUI problem doesn't mean your position is sound.

What the NHTSA et al. are trying to do here is to fix stupidity. The sad thing about this mandatory breathalyzer: it just won't curb DUI like you think it would. People will find ways to brick that car component and drink-and-drive as if it's never installed in the first place.

Simple fix: if the DUI'ed driver ends up killing its victims, the driver gets killed by the state on the spot, while all of their belongings/monies get confiscated and given to the victims' families as compensation.

"So if you want to save the planet, feel free to drive your Hummer. Just avoid the drive thru line at McDonalds." -- Michael Asher

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