VIDEO: 3 Ways Your Next Car Will Know If You Are Drunk

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Existing car technology can detect if you are drunk and NHTSA is betting on two more to make it into the car fleet within five years.MB driver assist image

States across America already order ignition locks be used on convicted drunk-drivers’ cars.  This reactive deployment of technology may have made a dent in drunk driving deaths, but the total percentage of Americans who are killed in all traffic deaths by drunk drivers has remained stubbornly at about 30% now for many years.  The existing technology can also be tricked.  A coalition of government agencies and automakers is working to deploy a system that would be part of a car, (optional at first, but we all know how that goes) that would prevent the car from starting and be non-intrusive to the normal driving we do.

The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) program is well down the path of two technologies. One would be part of the start button on the car, or would be in the gear-shift.  It measures a driver’s blood-alcohol level through the skin.  The second would be a breath analyzer that would be less intrusive than today’s system.  It would be mounted behind the steering wheel or in another part of the cabin and would measure the amount of alcohol in a driver’s system by using sensing technology that monitors a driver’s breath as he or she breathes normally.  DADSS is developing both with the plan of rolling out a product within the next four to five years.

BestRide asked Dr. Bud Zaouk, DADSS Program &Technical manager how these two technologies were chosen as the ones to focus on.  Dr. Zaouk told us “The goal of our program is to develop technology that would prevent a car from moving if a driver is at or above a 0.08 BAC – the legal limit in all 50 states. We must, therefore, be able to accurately and reliably measure a driver’s BAC level in a way that is seamless and guards against tampering or disabling. After surveying the landscape of existing technologies, soliciting ideas from the private industry, and conducting extensive testing, the breath-based and touch-based systems were found to have the greatest potential to meet these goals.”

In July, at a meeting that brought together members of Congress and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, NHTSA Administrator Rosekind said, “There is still a great deal of work to do, but support from Congress and industry has helped us achieve key research and development milestones.”  MADD National President Colleen Sheehey-Church added, “While we still have a lot of work to do, we are closer than ever to eliminating drunk driving.”

Interestingly, technology in cars you can buy today can already tell if you are impaired. Impairment from drugs, alcohol or fatigue, are all measurable using affordable technology in use on mainstream cars.  During a recent road test of the 2015 Ford Edge, we learned first-hand that it works as advertised.  While driving in the mountains of New Hampshire well into our third hour of wheel-time, the Ford Edge noticed that I was acting drowsy (I was drowsy).  My yawn was the final clue.  The Edge put up a warning and a coffee cup icon and suggested that I stop and rest.

The way it works varies a bit from manufacturer to manufacturer. When the expensive German models first came out with the technology, it was complex.  It looked at a driver’s eyes to make a determination if he or she was getting tired.  Cars could still do that, but lane departure warning systems are going to be the real movers of this technology going forward.  As our second video attachment shows, the things that a drowsy driver does are very similar to the tell-tale behaviors of a person under the influence of alcohol.

Dynamic cruise control and GPS navigation could also become part of the system that will know if you have been drinking. Drunk drivers have trouble with maintaining appropriate speeds.  Impaired operators drive slower than necessary in some cases, and, of course, they also exceed speed limits in some situations.  The car’s speed sensor, in combination with its knowledge of the road’s speed limit, will be part of the algorithm that detects a dangerous driver.   Does the exact reason the driver is dangerous really matter?  Whether a driver is drunk, on drugs, having a medical emergency, or falling asleep, a car can and will alert the driver to stop.  When we asked Dr. Zaouk if behavior-based technologies were considered by DADSS, he told us “Behavioral technologies are good at detecting impairment, but they are not able to provide a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) value and were therefore ruled out as an option.”

The direct-measurement technologies being looked at by DADSS have evolved from the breath analyzers that courts have already been approved as legal evidence of impairment due to alcohol.  One possibility we can envision would be that if a vehicle detects possible impairment by using the behavior monitoring technology it would ask the driver to confirm sobriety by using simplified breath or touch technology also on-board. After all, a driver that succeeds in pushing a start button with alcohol detection when sober (0.07 blood alcohol content) could still become impaired during the drive.