The technology developed in the past decade to sniff out terrorist bombs eventually may be used to combat drunken drivers.
Researchers funded by auto manufacturers and federal safety regulators are working on sensory devices -- to be installed as standard equipment on all new vehicles -- that would keep a vehicle from starting if the driver has had too much to drink.
"We're five to seven years away from being able to integrate this into cars," said Robert Strassburger, vice president for safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group for the world's major auto companies.
The new technology would not require that the driver blow into a tube, like the interlock devices some states require after drunken-driving convictions. Instead, either a passive set of sensors permanently installed in the vehicles or touch-sensitive contact points on a key fob or starter button would immediately register the level of alcohol in the driver's bloodstream.
Less clear is whether such technology, which presumes that all drivers are potential drunks, will antagonize some car buyers, and it's uncertain how much it would cost.
Alcohol was a factor in 10,839 highway deaths in 2009. In the past two decades, it accounted for 268,442 deaths. About 10 percent of people in the United States recently admitted to being drunk behind the wheel in the past year.
Drunken driving "remains the leading cause of fatalities on America's roads, killing more than 10,000 people in 2009," said David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The "technology presents a new opportunity for us to dramatically lower drunk-driving deaths and has the potential to save literally thousands of lives every year."
Strassburger, whose group is part of the development task force, said the goal is to have an operating model in two years.
The objective is to produce a device that will react in less than a second and function without maintenance for a least 10 years or 157,000 miles.
"We haven't met our criteria yet, but we feel comfortable that we will," said Susan Ferguson, a longtime safety expert who is leading the research. "Speed, accuracy and precision are the three key criteria."
Right now, she said, the sensors that detect alcohol levels in the air can be made to react within five seconds after a driver gets into the vehicle. The touch-detection system currently takes 20 to 30 seconds to determine blood-alcohol content.
"But the next generation of solid-state electronics will bring it down a lot," she said.
The sensors have proven accurate, but precision -- consistently repeatable accuracy -- needs to improve.
Strassburger said the cost per vehicle hasn't been established, "but obviously it has to be relatively low."
"It has to be in line with other safety systems," he said. "We want the public to understand the need and how they benefit."
The technology is a direct offshoot of the quantum advances in sensory detection since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The ability of machines to scan people, packages and luggage for tiny trace elements that would expose a terrorist threat has expanded exponentially.