Driver Alcohol Detection Solution Aims to Reduce Drunk Driving Accidents

Two new smart sensor systems for automobiles developed by KEA Technologies use touch- and breath-analysis technology to automatically measure a driver’s blood alcohol content. The system can accurately determine in less than a second whether the driver might be impaired and if so, can keep the engine from starting.

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Image credit: DADSS

The US government’s $1 trillion infrastructure package that was signed by the President in May 2022 includes increased funding targeted for improving auto safety. That package includes a provision in the legislation that mandates that new cars have a monitoring system aimed to prevent intoxicated drivers from operating a vehicle.

This technology could roll out in new vehicles as soon as 2026, according to The Associated Press. This timeline is meant to give automakers the ability to test options and adapt while the Transportation Department decides what kind of technology could be the most feasible–and functional–to install in millions of vehicles.

The goal of the new technology is to help ease a drunk-driving problem that has worsened over time. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that every day, about 28 people in the United States die in drunk-driving crashes. Between 2010 to 2019, more than 10,000 people died every year in drunk-driving crashes.

More recently, NHTSA estimated that 20,160 people died in motor vehicle crashes of any reason in the first half of 2021, which is an 18.4 percent increase over 2020 and the largest number of projected deaths in that time period since 2006. Speeding, impaired driving, and not wearing seatbelts are all cited as reasons for the spike by the NHTSA.

Driver Monitoring Technology

While some convicted drunken drivers currently must use breathalyzer devices to gain access to driving their car, new cars will likely use more automated IoT technology. The new legislation states that the device must “passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired.”

KEA Technologies, located in Littleton, MA, is one of the companies working on the new generation of automated driver monitoring technology. KEA conducts independent testing services and builds products and engineering solutions for transportation industry partners.

KEA has developed Breath Alcohol Ignition Interlock (BAIIDs) technology, which includes devices used to combat alcohol-impaired driving. These devices have to perform to internationally accepted standards to ensure the safety of everyone on the road. KEA provides accredited laboratory services to test devices against these accepted standards. 

KEA Technologies is also involved in the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS) program, which is a private-public partnership between the NHTSA and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS). At the national level, DADSS focuses on research and development to advance alcohol detection system technologies. KEA operates the DADSS Laboratory in Massachusetts, where the team conducts mechanical and electrical equipment assessment, verification and validation, and situational driver testing. 

KEA Technologies devices in a vehicle.

Image credit: KEA Technologies

Smart Sensor Solutions

For the new monitoring mandate, DADSS and KEA have co-developed smart sensor technology for in-vehicle use that can work automatically to stop impaired drivers from operating a vehicle. They are testing two types of sensor systems to measure a driver’s blood alcohol content:

Breath testing. This sensor solution is designed to be located near the driver, either on the driver’s side door or on the steering wheel. It can measure the concentration of alcohol molecules in the driver’s exhaled breath. If the ratio of alcohol to carbon dioxide molecules is above a certain range, the system determines that the driver has an illegal alcohol level, and the car won’t move.

Touch-based testing. This type of sensor solution is touch based. It measures alcohol content by shining a beam of infrared light onto a driver’s fingertip when it is placed on the car’s ignition button or on gear shift. It can then read the level of alcohol in the blood through the skin tissue.

While the sensors are intelligent, they are intended to function only as passive monitoring, to avoid privacy concerns and pushback against their development. The sensors can prevent the vehicle from operating, but they will not report the data or non-operation status to law enforcement or any third-party entity, according to Robert Strassburger, the President and CEO of Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, Inc.  

Sensors Hit the Road

In the testing and development phase, KEA has equipped a fleet of vehicles with its most recent sensor prototypes. The solution supports data acquisition system equipment to evaluate the sensor performance in an operational, live, on-road setting. 

At the beginning of a test day, paid participants are safely dosed with alcohol in a controlled environment. The participants interact with the sensors, while professional drivers operate the instrumented vehicles along predetermined routes. These unique tests are meant to validate in-laboratory results and stress-test the sensor technology to ensure survival in all the environments and situations that a driver typically operates a vehicle. 

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