News & Updates

The Wall Street Journal  |  April 3, 2012

After the Party, a Car That Takes Away Your Keys

Joseph B. White

Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. In the future, your car could be that friend.

Researchers working with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are developing technology that could be built into a car’s dashboard or controls to check a driver’s blood-alcohol level and refuse to start if above the legal limit. The effort, which began in 2008, is officially known as the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, or DADSS for short.

“We’ve made more progress, faster, than we expected,” says Rob Strassburger, vice president for vehicle safety at the alliance. Contributing to advances is national-security research aimed at developing remote sensors that can detect biological or other chemical agents. Also, researchers say that fingertip sensors used in hospitals to monitor blood-sugar levels and other physical indicators are useful in detecting blood-alcohol levels, too.

It sounds futuristic and it will likely be years—eight to 10 by Mr. Strassburger’s estimate—before cars and trucks with built-in blood-alcohol detectors are for sale. The next phase, additional years off, is a commercially produced vehicle with the technology to drive a tipsy owner home autonomously.

Whether drivers will be comfortable with cars that could potentially override their commands is another matter. Already, a restaurant group is lobbying against the technology.

The arguments for pursuing cars that can detect drunk drivers revolve around the stubborn persistence of alcohol as a factor in fatal car crashes. In 1982, about 49% of drivers killed in car wrecks had blood-alcohol levels of 0.08 or higher. By 1994, that percentage had dropped to about 33%, where it has since plateaued, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found in a study of federal data from 1982 to 2010.

Technology to disable a car if the driver is intoxicated already exists, but it is currently used primarily as a punitive measure for people caught with blood-alcohol levels over the legal limit.

About 16 states now require people convicted of driving with blood-alcohol levels over the 0.08 legal limit to install so-called alcohol interlocks in their vehicles. These clunky systems require drivers to blow into a tube to verify that they are sober before the car can start. Nobody in the auto industry is proposing to offer such systems as factory-installed equipment. Instead, sensors would be unobtrusive, perhaps embedded in a starter button or a shift lever.

Enthusiasm for the potential of alcohol-detection technology is reflected in a proposed federal transportation bill. In it is a measure that would give the NHTSA’s alcohol-detector program $24 million over two years—a sum that could allow the agency by 2013 to equip a fleet of 100 or more cars with prototypes of two types of alcohol detectors. One would measure the alcohol in the driver’s breath. The other would use touch technology to take a reading from the driver’s skin, likely the fingertip used to activate a starter button.

The counter argument, at this early stage, is coming most loudly from the organization that represents the restaurant industry in Washington, D.C. “It is going to create a zero tolerance environment,” says Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute.

“We believe there’s nothing unsafe or illegal about having a glass of wine with dinner and driving home,” Ms. Longwell says. Her group’s concern is that onboard alcohol detectors will have to be calibrated to shut down the car at levels well below 0.08, to avoid the liability risk of a driver getting in the car at just below the limit, and then exceeding the limit during the drive home as the last drink enters the bloodstream.

In a Sept. 30, 2011, letter to the American Beverage Institute, the program manager for the alcohol-detection research program said the systems would not be set to prevent operation of the car at levels below 0.08, and would provide for a retest in the case a driver is locked out.

Ultimately, the future of onboard alcohol detectors will come down to convenience and culture.

NHTSA officials have said they have no plans to mandate onboard alcohol-detection systems in cars. The agency got a black eye in the 1970s when it mandated the installation of so-called seat belt interlocks that made it impossible to start a car until the driver fastened the seat belt. The uproar from consumers moved Congress to pass legislation forbidding seat-belt interlocks that stands to this day.

Still, the alcohol-detection system is a further example of how technology promises to change the relationship people have with their automobiles. If auto makers and safety regulators do attempt to encourage adoption of these systems, they’ll need to design them so that consumers don’t just want to rip them out. It could be that the first factory-installed alcohol interlocks are ordered by corporate or rental-fleet operators—who can make acceptance of the technology a condition of using the vehicle.

“We have to develop a technology that lives in a car for 20 years and works flawlessly,” Mr. Strassburger says. “That’s a pretty high bar.”