Promising Vehicle Tech Will Detect Drunk Drivers Before They Hit the Road

Technological innovations have brought us smarter and safer cars. Despite these advancements, one of the greatest threats on our roadways remains—drunk driving.

Is there a role for technology to tackle this persistent public safety challenge?

The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) Research Program is working to find that answer.

What started as a strategic safety concept has— through meticulous research and development—become a set of working prototypes that hold the potential to significantly reduce the injuries and deaths caused by drunk driving.

DADSS technology

Once completed DADSS technology will detect when a driver is intoxicated with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at or above 0.08 and prevent the car from moving. Two different approaches passed the proof-of-concept review and are being tested, modified and reduced to a size that can fit in a car—one touch-based and one breath-based. The touch-based sensor measures and analyzes the blood alcohol concentration under the skin’s surface by shining an infrared light through the fingertip of the driver. By measuring the reflected light, the system can accurately determine the concentration of alcohol. The breath-based system measures the alcohol in a driver’s naturally exhaled breath. A small sensor compares the amount of carbon dioxide molecules with alcohol molecules in a driver’s breath using infrared light, to accurately calculate the breath alcohol concentration.

While there remains a long road ahead to make this technology concept consumer-ready, it has made impressive progress and has led to new patents and advancements in laser technology and alcohol detection, as well as a broader body of research on alcohol absorption and elimination.

This technology is being developed through a public-private partnership between the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, which represents the world’s leading automakers, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The common goal between these two organizations is to advance alcohol detection technology to a point where it can be integrated into new vehicles and voluntarily offered to customers as a safety option, similar to automatic braking, lane departure warning and other advanced driver-assist vehicle technologies. Through the wide acceptance and installation of this technology, we can work to combat the roughly 10,000 deaths that are due to drunk driving each year.

To deliver a road-ready technology that’s also consumer-ready, this technology must be fast, reliable and accurate; small enough to fit seamlessly into existing vehicle controls; and sensitive enough not to hassle a sober driver while correctly distinguishing between driver and passenger. To get there, we need a broad team of partners, funders, technology developers, researchers and engineers dedicated to perfecting this first-of-its-kind system. When we started this work, our first charge was to build the tools that we could use to verify and validate the devices. They simply did not exist before with the required high accuracy and precision. Today, our labs contain machines that accurately simulate breath and human tissue and allow us to test systems repeatedly with high precision while introducing alcohol in various concentrations.

Of course, the real test comes when humans are factored into the equation. Researchers and scientists at McLean Hospital Behavioral Psychopharmacology Research Laboratory—an affiliate of Harvard Medical School—are closely supervising human subject testing of the DADSS prototypes, where the precision of the alcohol detection system meets the variability of the human body. These tests sample a diverse array of subjects and include laboratory simulations of social situations such as “last call” and “social snacking,” which may affect blood alcohol content. When the prototypes can remain accurate despite the real-world variety in alcohol consumption, body type, age, ethnicity and other influencing factors on BAC, we will be ready to take this technology on the road.

It is these tightly measured and closely observed tests that will be crucial to the ultimate rollout of the DADSS technology. A serious safety issue needs a serious solution—that’s why the engineers and scientists involved are requiring multiple rounds of testing to ensure accuracy and precision in the final technology—without it, we would not have confidence in the readings and in the ability of the tech to help keep drivers safe.

We also want interest, understanding and buy-in from consumers so that automakers may integrate this technology seamlessly into all vehicles that hit the road. DADSS is a driver assistance system that will help drivers make smarter decisions when it comes to getting behind the wheel of their vehicle after drinking, and that gives parents peace of mind when they hand the keys to their teenage driver. In fact, the final alcohol detection system will come with the capability to be programmed with a zero-tolerance policy for underage drivers, ensuring the technology responds to the needs of the consumer. The promise of the DADSS program has already captured the interest of consumers and leading safety partners, who are an integral part of the consumer acceptance of the DADSS technology as we gear up for rollout.

The next phase of the DADSS Program will be collecting real-time results from field operational tests. The tests will take place in different temperatures, humidity, altitude and other environmental conditions that a driver would face in real time. These trials—scheduled for 2018—will help us collect the data needed to perfect this technology, and take us one step closer to the day when consumers can walk into their dealerships and request a vehicle with an alcohol detection system. We are excited about our progress, but even more excited about the program’s potential to use technology to address a persistent public health threat and save lives.