Drunk driving is a serious problem in the United States. There is no argument when it comes to this problem; there is only one way to look at it. The argument comes in the area of responsibility. Does it rest solely on the shoulders of the driver? The alcohol manufacturers? The car companies for enabling drunk drivers to operate a vehicle? Most of us would say that the responsibility clearly lies with the person consuming the alcohol then making the decision to drive. However, with a cooperative agreement between the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS), Auto Alliance, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and 16 auto manufacturers (including the 12 represented by the Auto Alliance) there is research being done to compensate for the lack of responsibility shown by inebriated drivers.
Back in 2005 the state of New Mexico was getting tired of dealing with the after-effects of drunk driving. So along with the territory of Ontario, Canada and all of Sweden, New Mexico sought to put breathalyzer-based interlocks in commercial vehicles. Interlocks are systems attached to the ignition that prevent a car from starting pending another event, in this case – breathing into a tube for a minute to determine blood alcohol levels. Obviously, there was a huge uproar about the implications of such a device if not for convicted drunk drivers (as is its purpose now). While the idea didn’t spark any immediate support or production, it did lead to the “MADD Summit.” From that came the DADSS (Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety) program. The goal of the program is to seek out and develop appropriate technology for vehicles that would be unobtrusive and reliable to determine blood alcohol level and make an ignition decision in the time it would take for a driver to press the start button. The target time of measurement is 350 milliseconds.
In those 350 milliseconds whatever alcohol detection system is in the vehicle has to make a decision about the level of driver impairment. A sample would need to be collected from the driver, through some sort of physical interaction, then the car would either start or not start. The concept in a very high level and vague estimation is similar in function to the current breathalyzer interlocks. The devil is in the details though, as this system would have to be nearly invisible to the driver and require no more action than is normally taken to start a vehicle.
1/4th of 1% of all crashes are caused by impaired driving, which accounts for 33% of all traffic fatalities.
Thousands of lives are lost every year to drunk drivers, and it’s unfortunately not always just the inebriated driver. It’s innocent lives, forced into a traffic accident caused by someone else’s bad decision. Drivers take 350 billion trips a year (a trip being every time you drive from point A to point B). 92 million of those trips are being taken by someone who is at or above the legal blood alcohol saturation level. Of those, 1.5 million get arrested. One million get convicted, but only 200,000 get interlocks. One fourth of one percent of all crashes are caused by impaired driving, which accounts for 33% of all traffic fatalities. The DADSS program is tired of looking at statistics like that. So phase one of the research phase was finding a tech manufacturer who can help them achieve their goal.
Heading the research effort is QinetiQ. They are a technology research and testing facility based in Waltham, MA (America Operations). Recently I visited their secure facility in Waltham, where I was met with enthusiasm by Bud Zaouk, Director of Surface Transportation serving as the technical manager of the program. He explained to me that there were four options for technology. The first was already in use, electrochemical (breathalyzer) which takes too long to warm up along with annual calibration. That one was scratched off the list. Next up was behavioral, which would require the driver to press buttons to determine level of impairment but could not measure intoxication level. This one was also scratched off the list. That left distance spectrometry and touch spectrometry. Both are viable technologies with many variables, each with their own positives and negatives.
Distance spectrometry operates by drawing a breath into a device hosting an infrared spectrum that breaks down the molecules to determine inebriation. Again, this has to be done and analyzed within milliseconds. The variables for this technology are astounding. Bud pointed out that he was given no less than four two-and-a-half inch thick binders full of possible variables. Just off the top of my head: whether or not the air conditioning is on, vibrations from the radio, breath of other drivers, open windows, fresh fish from the market, saturated clothing, asthma, and so on. You could spend an afternoon listing out the variables and probably still not list them all. Taking a tour through the lab, I was introduced to a proprietary machine built to replicate the breath generally exhaled from a human lung. The machine adds humidity at correct parts per million, then mixed with the appropriate amount of ethanol emulates a drunk person’s breath. This technology is being developed by a company called AutoLiv, based in Sweden.
Touch spectrometry is just as complex, with a different set of variables. Developed by True Touch in partnership with Takata, the technology seeks to measure blood alcohol level via near infrared light which penetrates the epidermis to analyze the composition of the fluids present in the dermis layer of the skin. To emulate this, Bud shows me a test tube filled with polystyrene beads to represent collagen, in which they mix in alcohol. The research around the touch technology gets interesting when we start talking about analyzing blood to determine the way alcohol affects the blood, and how it is eliminated from the body over time. Using a gas chromatograph (the gold standard for analyzing compounds, used often in forensics) to set the baseline and confirm their mixtures, QinetiQ is making sure that every simulation of alcohol is as accurate as possible.
The blood that is being tested isn’t being synthesized. It’s actual human blood. Through a partnership with Harvard Medical School, volunteers (rigorously tested and vetted) are dosed with alcohol for about 20 minutes, with about eight shots of Vodka. Their blood alcohol is driven up to .12 then they start dropping. For the next eight hours, blood is being drawn to be sent back to McClain Hospital to be analyzed there. To take it a step further, QinetiQ plans on building a living room to emulate social drinking, as like during a Monday Night football game. At this point, this particular piece of the research is speculative. There is a huge “what-if”: if the technology to measure inebriation is accepted, how would you then measure in a continuous fashion? In order to even contemplate that, they have to understand how alcohol enters and leaves the bloodstream. Meaning, you could be at 0.8 and rising when you get into a vehicle, or you are at 0.8 and dropping when you enter a vehicle. Obviously the rising is more dangerous, even though neither situation is advised.
In my opinion, the touch spectrometry is going be the way to go. With distance, there are way too many variable when it comes to drawing in a breath. With touch, everyone touches something in the car right? You either touch the steering wheel, or the start button – something. If you want to be really paranoid though, you can think to yourself – what else are they analyzing looking at your blood? Will your OnStar system come on during a Sunday drive and tell you that you have cancer or that you are pregnant? What data will be relayed through that system to a central database? Of course, touch spectrometry is using near infrared light and not actually drawing blood, so perhaps those paranoid thoughts aren’t possible anyway.
Right now the technology, both distance and touch, are in the early phases of development. The time to measure is nowhere close yet, the devices are both much too large to fit in a vehicle, so there is much work to be done. QinetiQ has brought in half of a vehicle (missing an engine block) to eventually simulate in-car conditions. Basically, this technology is years from perfection and completion. However, once the technology is proven viable (and unobtrusive) the policy discussion will begin, and that is where the battle will be. Thankfully for QinetiQ, that won’t be their issue to deal with outside of proving that the technology works. For the Auto Alliance and the other organizations supporting this initiative, it’s going to be a steep uphill battle.
Way back in 1974, the NHTSA decided to mandate seat belt activated interlocks in all new vehicles. With only a couple months lead time, car manufacturers rushed to install these systems in vehicles, amidst angered public outcry. The systems were flawed from the beginning, and were overturned by Congress later that year. This bill (that overturned the decision for seat belt interlocks) nearly destroyed the future of airbags. Poor planning, poor research and development and good intentions created a disparaging state of public opinion when it comes to forced safety in automobiles.
People… don’t like to be told what to do, but they force others to deal with the consequences of their actions.
The failure of the seat belt interlock system only highlights the research and development that would need to go into future systems. Even considering an alcohol detection system in vehicles will ruffle a lot of feathers within all corners of public opinion and the government. No matter your opinion on the subject, people have proven that they don’t like to be told what to do, but they force others to deal with the consequences of their actions. It’s something we all experience when we encounter a driver who is inebriated, but cannot and does not make the responsible decision. This is why this technology is even being considered, and this is why this technology will face strong opposition.
Whenever the government tries to mandate anything in our daily lives, there is always a boiling point for the public. While this possible legislation is years from being considered, the time will come when it will. With an alcohol detection system in vehicles, lives may be saved but the argument about having to sacrifice a personal freedom will be the fire starter. But is drunk driving a right? Considering it’s illegal, probably not.
So what do you think? Would you knowingly purchase a vehicle that has an alcohol detection system in it? Consider that the goal is that you won’t even be able to tell the system is there, save for the car not starting if you are inebriated.
Thousands of deaths a year are attributed to drunk drivers, and the DADSS program is looking to drastically slash that number through innovative technology, since simply telling people not to drive drunk just isn’t working.
Top Image: Flickr User Alex E. Proimos, spectrometer image by C.Silver