Automakers could be required to install technology to detect drunk drivers

Car manufacturers would be required to include technology to monitor whether US drivers are impaired by alcohol and to disable the vehicle from operating under a proposal contained in the infrastructure bill awaiting a Senate vote.

While advocates say the proposal could save thousands of lives, the move has some critics worried it could cross ethical boundaries and raise civil rights issues.

The proposal is to develop technology that can passively monitor a driver to detect impairment or passively detect blood alcohol levels and prevent operation of a vehicle if impairment is detected or if levels are too high.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that drunk-driving is involved in 10,000 deaths a year in the US, one person every 52 minutes, and US police departments arrest about 1 million people a year for alcohol-impaired driving.

According to the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, which represents the world’s leading automakers, the first product equipped with new alcohol detection technology will be available for open licensing in commercial vehicles later this year.

The technology will automatically detect when a driver is intoxicated with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at or above 0.08% – the legal limit in all 50 states except Utah – and then immobilize the car.

Partly funded by the federal government through the NHTSA, the technology centers on sensors that could measure alcohol in the air around the driver, or a sensor in the start button or driving wheel to measure blood alcohol content in capillaries in a driver’s finger.

But the NHTSA has warned that any monitoring system will have to be “seamless, accurate and precise, and unobtrusive to the sober driver”.

If the proposal in the infrastructure bill becomes law it will mandate that “advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology must be standard equipment in all new passenger motor vehicles.”

Within three years of its becoming law, the Department of Transportation would be required to sign off on accepted technology. Carmakers would have a further three years to comply. The transportation secretary, however, can extend the timeframe of approval for up to a decade if requirements are “reasonable, practicable, and appropriate”.

According to reports, the agency is keen to avoid a repeat of seatbelt technology in 1970s that was designed to prevent a car from starting unless they were buckled but frequently malfunctioned, stranding drivers.

The technology emerged after a panel of auto industry representatives and safety advocates convened by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (Madd) was formed to encourage and support the development of passive technology to prevent drunk-driving. Citing a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Madd estimates that more than 9,000 lives a year could be saved if drunk-driving prevention tech were installed on all new cars.

The Center for Automotive Research (Car) has said that the challenge for the auto industry is to come up with something that is affordable and functions efficiently enough to be installed in millions of new vehicles.

“I don’t think that will be as easy as people might think,” Car’s chief executive, Carla Bailo, told NBC News. An impaired-driver sensor, Bailo added, was likely to be expensive and would have to be especially effective because “people will try to cheat”.

But the technology also raises ethical questions about surveillance, even if that surveillance is in service of reducing a social problem that costs $44bn in economic costs and $210bn in comprehensive societal costs, according to a 2010 study.

Madd does not support punitive measures, including breath-testing devices attached to an ignition interlock that some convicted drunk drivers are required to use before starting their vehicles, but advocates instead that anti-drunk-driving measures should be integrated in vehicle systems.

“If we have the cure, why wouldn’t we use it?” said Stephanie Manning, Madd’s chief government affairs officer. “Victims and survivors of drunk-driving tell us this technology is part of their healing, and that’s what they have been telling members of Congress.”

Manning points out that the auto industry has invested billions in autonomous vehicles, and alcohol detection technology is just one type of driver-distraction technology that the Department of Transportation needs to consider.

“The technology we favor is the one that stops impaired drivers from using their vehicles as weapons on the road,” Manning said. “The industry has the technology that knows what a drunk driver looks like. The question is, at what point does the car need to take over to prevent somebody from being killed or seriously injured?”

But the technology raises serious ethical and data privacy questions, including how to ensure collected data doesn’t end up in the hands of law enforcement or insurance companies.

Wolf Schäfer, professor of technology and society at the Stony Brook University, said: “It’s a policy question that has ethical implications. Cars are increasingly pre-programmed and that brings up questions of responsibility for the actions of the car. Is it the programmer? The manufacturer? The person who bought the car?

“Many people accept that one shouldn’t drive drunk and if you do, you commit an infraction. But in this situation the car becomes supervisor of your conduct. So ethics-wise, one could get away with that. But should this be reported to authorities presents grave ethical problems,” Schäfer said. “The privacy issues are real because sensors collect data, and what happens to this data is a question that’s all over the place, not just with cars.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said it was “still evaluating the proposal”.