Thinking Tech

New car technology can stop drunks from driving

New car technology can stop drunks from driving

Posting in Government

Government officials have given a tentative thumbs up to a new technology for cars that would render the concept of driving while drunk a non-starter -- literally.

Government officials have given a tentative thumbs up to a new technology for cars that would render the concept of driving while drunk a non-starter -- literally.

On Friday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, were on hand when researchers publicly demonstrated a car-embeddable sensor system that cleverly locks down the engine if it detects that the driver's blood alcohol level was above the legal limit.

Through the use of strategically placed sensors in places like the steering wheel and door locks, the North America Driver Alcohol Detection Systems for Safety, created by QinetiQ, a research facility in Waltham, Massachusetts, would analyze a driver's skin or breath to determine a driver's level of intoxication.

The system is being promoted as an alternative to alcohol ignition interlock systems that force drivers to blow into a breathalyzer type device before the car can be started. The cumbersome ignition systems are sometimes used by drivers as part of a DUI conviction.

After the demonstration, Strickland and LaHood gave a positive, yet cautious, assessment of the technology:

The technology is "another arrow in our automotive safety quiver," said LaHood, who emphasized the system was envisioned as optional equipment in future cars and voluntary for auto manufacturers.

David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, also attended the demonstration and estimated the technology could prevent as many as 9,000 fatal alcohol-related crashes a year in the U.S., though he also acknowledged that it was still in its early testing stages and might not be commercially available for 8-10 years. (Associated Press)

And since the system will likely fall under the optional category for automakers, the technology must prove itself to be reliable enough to not mistakenly prevent the more sober folks from starting their cars to have any hope of being adopted by the masses.

The systems would not be employed unless they are "seamless, unobtrusive and unfailingly accurate," Strickland told the Associated Press.

A test showed that a 20-something year-old woman weighing 120 pounds had a blood alcohol content level of .06, just below the legal limit of .08, after drinking two 1 1/2 ounce glasses of vodka and orange juice about a half hour apart.

Even if the technology is perfected, it'll still be a tough sell. Freedom and the means to move about freely are cherished American values. So my guess is that there are very few people who would readily embrace the technology because of the off-chance that a slight malfunction would cause them to be late or, at worst, stuck somewhere.

But with an increasingly greater awareness of the dangers of drunk driving, the promise of such a system shows that technological solutions are in place should the tide turn.


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Tuan Nguyen

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Tuan C. Nguyen is a freelance science journalist based in New York City. He has written for the U.S. News and World Report, Fox News, MSNBC, ABC News, AOL, Yahoo! News and LiveScience. Formerly, he was reporter and producer for the technology section of ABCNews.com. He holds degrees from the University of California Los Angeles and the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure