The idea of your car detecting your blood alcohol level and refusing to start if you're above the legal limit isn't new. Sixteen states require DUI offenders to blow into a tube before they get behind the wheel. Technology to make the testing process less cumbersome has been in the works for several years, but according to The Wall Street Journal
, researchers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers are getting closer to making the tests standard issue on all vehicles.
Borrowing from technology used in hospitals to measure blood-sugar levels and in national-security research for detecting chemical agents, the researchers are developing two different types of tests. The first is a touch sensor built into a car's steering wheel or starter button to detect a driver's blood alcohol level. The second is a test of the car's internal atmosphere, using technology developed partly for the Department of Homeland Security. "It tests the atmosphere of the car and realizes if you're drunk," Wall Street Journal writer Joseph White said in an interview (below). "It's a sniffer."
But researchers must overcome several hurdles if the technology is to be vehicle-ready on a mass scale. For the touch sensor to be viable, it needs to function for 20 years, work flawlessly (no false positives) and give results quickly. And the sniffer system must be able to determine when the driver is sober but his passengers are not.
There's another, possibly bigger, question facing researchers: Do drivers even want this technology? The restaurant industry, for one, is hesitant. "They're worried it would cut into profits," White said. "Nobody wants people dying on the highway, but we don't want to curtail people's enjoyment of life, either."
In the 1970s, drivers balked when faced with forced seatbelt use -- they didn't want to be told what to do inside their cars. The same could happen with the blood alcohol sensors, the technology for which is now several years from being automobile-ready. "The technology barriers appear to be falling reasonably fast," White said. "The real question is whether the cultural barriers will fall equally fast."
Other attempts at similar technology have been made: In 2007, Nissanreportedly tested
sensors that measured a driver's perspiration, odor and alertness, and shut the car's engine off if they detected high blood alcohol levels. Toyota
also was reported to be developing
similar technology that year, using sensors to detect abnormal steering and a special camera to detect if the driver's pupils weren't in focus.
The recent technological push comes courtesy of a recently passed highway bill, which includes financing to fast-track these systems. According to White, the goal is to put 100 more cars on the road with this technology to test it further.