Accidents happen every day, but according to the World Heath Organisation drunk drivers are responsible for a million road deaths every year.
Researchers at technology giant QinetiQ are trying to find ways to keep roads of the future free of drunk drivers and are currently developing two prototypes that give the car veto power over the driver. The first, says QinetiQ’s Bud Zaouk, gauges a driver’s sobriety by taking precise measurements of his or her breath.
“You get in the car and as you are breathing, that breath plume is going to be sucked into a small sensor. It is going to be either in the steering wheel or the header of the vehicle and it is going to calculate the alcohol concentration. And it is going to do this very quickly, you know, less than a second, about half a second.”
If the driver is over the legal limit the car will not allow that person to drive. Zaouk says the breath test will be at least as accurate as today’s breathalyzer tests administered by police. The challenge is automating the system, giving it the ability to convert vapour measurements into a blood alcohol reading.
The team is also working on a touch sensor which uses infrared light to measure alcohol levels. The sensor measures the alcohol concentration in the blood travelling through the driver’s fingertips.
Wade Newton is a spokesman for car manufacturers supporting the research.
“When you look at the stats that show that one quarter of one percent of all trips in the U.S. are made by an impaired driver, yet that one quarter of one percent accounts for like 32 percent of all highway fatalities, I think the fact that you can have such a dramatic impact on highway safety is probably the most exciting thing, not to mention the fact that you are really dealing with technology that seemed so space age just a few years ago and we are on the verge of putting the prototypes in vehicles now.”
The auto industry may be supportive but all involved are aware that consumers might not want to buy a a car that tells them they are too drunk to drive.
“In the end, there has to be that element of consumer acceptance and what we are doing right now so that consumer acceptance is even a possibility is designing it so that this is really going to be invisible to the sober driver. Someone that hasn’t had too much to drink isn’t even going to know that it is in the vehicle which we think is a critical part of it.”
Both Zaouk and Newton say the system, when ready, will be available as an optional safety feature much like anti-lock brakes or curb detection technology, probably in about ten years time.
Bottom Line: Researchers in Massachusetts are developing alcohol detection systems that will give decision-making power to the cars of the future. As Ben Gruber reports, if a driver has had one too many the car will stay put.