Nov 9, 2022 - Technology

Your next car might not drive if you've been drinking

Illustration of a pixelated key and circle creating a strike symbol

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

In a few years, your car is likely to know if you've been drinking too much and could block you from driving — even if you think you're sober enough to do so.

Why it matters: Drunk driving crashes kill 32 people per day in the U.S. That's one person every 45 minutes, and more than 10,000 per year.

Driving the news: Sophisticated alcohol detection technologies now in development could save most of those lives, experts say.

  • They'll soon be required in every new car: Last year's Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act gave the federal government until November 2024 to create a rule guiding how these drunk driving prevention systems will be implemented.

What's happening: Automakers and federal safety regulators are researching two high-tech alcohol detection systems.

  • One automatically detects alcohol on a driver's breath; the other measures it through the driver's skin.
  • An early version of the breath sensor is currently being tested by truck and livery drivers in Virginia.

How it works: Both the breath and touch technologies are being designed as "passive," or noninvasive, safety systems.

The breath-based system is further along in development and could be ready by 2024.

  • Unlike existing breathalyzers, which require a person to blow forcefully into a mouthpiece, the new system automatically determines a driver's alcohol concentration with a sensor in the door or steering column that captures a person's breath.
  • A beam of infrared light is then directed at the molecules in the breath. If the system detects that the proportion of alcohol to carbon dioxide is above the legal limit, the vehicle won't move.
  • The system can distinguish between the breath of drivers and passengers, and parents can program it for zero-tolerance to keep their underage children from driving after consuming any alcohol.

The touch-based system could be ready by 2025.

  • It reads drivers' blood alcohol level below the skin surface using touch sensors in the car's ignition button or gear shifter.
  • The sensor shines a beam of light onto a person's finger and uses near-infrared tissue spectroscopy to take measurements.

Where it stands: A Swedish company, Senseair, has licensed the first iteration of the breath sensor technology, and could bring it to market as early as next year, Robert Strassburger, president and CEO of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, tells Axios.

  • The tech is still under development. One challenge: Engineers are trying to get the touch sensor to work even if the driver is wearing gloves.
  • And they're refining the breath sensor to eliminate "interference" from benign substances with alcohol, such as hand sanitizer, certain vaping liquids and even a monk fruit sweetener found in some energy bars.

Yes, but: Some liability lawyers wonder how such technologies would interact with other assisted-driving systems, and whether automakers could ultimately be held responsible for drunk driving accidents.

What to watch: Whether drivers accept this new tech as a vital safety measure or lambast it as a privacy overreach.

  • "We've taken an audacious idea and proven the concept," Strassburger says. "The last red flag is consumer acceptance and being able to explain to folks what the system does — how they benefit from it and why they shouldn't fear it."
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