An alcohol-detection prototype that uses automatic sensors to instantly gauge a driver's fitness to be on the road has the potential to save thousands of lives but could be as long as a decade away from everyday use in cars, federal officials and researchers said Friday.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood visited QinetiQ North America, a research and development facility based here, for the first public demonstration of systems that could measure whether a motorist has a blood-alcohol content at or above the legal limit of .08 and -- if so -- prevent the vehicle from starting.
The technology is being designed as unobtrusive, unlike current alcohol ignition interlock systems often mandated by judges for convicted drunken drivers. Those require operators to blow into a breath-testing device before the car can start.
The Driver Alcohol Detection Systems for Safety, as the new approach is called, would use sensors to measure blood-alcohol content in one of two possible ways: by analyzing a driver's breath or through the skin, using sophisticated touch-based sensors placed strategically on steering wheels and door locks, for example.
Both methods eliminate the need for drivers to take any extra steps, and those who are sober would not be delayed in getting on the road, researchers said.
The technology is "another arrow in our automotive safety quiver," said LaHood, who emphasized the system was envisioned as optional equipment in future cars and voluntary for auto manufacturers.
David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who attended the demonstration, estimated the technology could prevent as many as 9,000 fatal alcohol-related crashes a year in the U.S. But he acknowledged that it was still in its early testing stages and might not be commercially available for 8 to 10 years.
The systems would not be employed unless they are "seamless, unobtrusive and unfailingly accurate," Strickland said.
The initial $10 million research program is funded jointly by NHTSA and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, an industry group representing many of the world's car makers.
Critics, such as Sarah Longwell of the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade association, doubt if the technology could ever be perfected to the point that it would be fully reliable and not stop some completely sober people from driving.
"Even if the technology is 99.9 percent reliable, that's still tens of thousands of cars that won't start every day," Longwell said.
Her group also questions whether a .08 limit would actually be high enough to stop all drunken drivers, since blood-alcohol content can rise in people during a trip depending on factors such as how recently they drank and how much they ate.
"It's going to eliminate the ability of people to have a glass of wine with dinner or a beer at a ball game and then drive home, something that is perfectly safe and currently legal in all 50 states," she said.
LaHood disputed that the technology would interfere with moderate social drinking. He said the threshold in cars would never be set below the legal limit.