The in-vehicle technology used by Ford, GM and others to ensure drivers pay attention to the road has come a long way. However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it is still not enough to prevent or reduce the harm caused by drunk driving.
This assessment is included throughout the agency’s new 99-page Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. released Tuesday was a pit stop of sorts on the way to enacting regulations that would require in-vehicle technology to recognize when a driver has been drinking.
NHTSA is currently seeking assistance in determining what technology should be incorporated into vehicles to completely reduce or prevent this problem, in part because NHTSA has no commercially available options. states that it does not exist. After the notice is published in the Federal Register, the public has 60 days to submit comments.
NHTSA says it evaluated 331 driver monitoring systems and found no commercially available systems that adequately handle the identification of alcohol impairment. The magazine noted that there are three DMS systems that claim to detect alcohol-induced impairment, but said they are still in the research and development stage. (We did not reveal the names of those systems.)
However, driver monitoring is not the only option at NHTSA’s disposal. NHTSA embarked on this mission after President Biden ordered the agency to find a solution in 2021 with bipartisan infrastructure legislation. The act charged NHTSA with developing federal motor vehicle safety standards that could determine whether a driver is impaired by passively monitoring the driver. Or it could be by passively (and accurately) detecting whether the blood alcohol concentration is too high, or a combination of both.
Accuracy is key, and NHTSA findings suggest that blood alcohol detection technology is a more viable solution in the short term. After all, dozens of states already require breathalyzer-based alcohol ignition interlocks for repeat offenders or high-BAC offenders. However, this technology is considered ‘active’, meaning that drivers must actively engage with it, which is contrary to the law’s passive requirement.
There may be another option.
Since 2008, NHTSA has been working with the Alliance for Automobile Traffic Safety (ACTS) on a public-private partnership called Driver Alcohol Sensing Systems for Safety (DADSS). As part of that program, DADSS has developed both breath-based and contact-based methods to detect driver impairment. Breath-based methods are also considered active and therefore non-starters, while touch sensors are designed to be embedded in something the driver needs to touch to operate the vehicle (such as a push-start button). NHTSA has “preliminarily determined that such touch sensors may be considered passive.”
ACTS CEO Robert Strassberger said he believes touch sensors may be the best option in the short term, given the technology’s limitations in being passive. He wants to know what the public thinks.
“That’s going to be one of the areas of interest for me when I read the comments that are ultimately submitted. How do people feel about it? Will it ultimately be accepted by consumers? It depends,” he says. “I think one of the things we definitely want to avoid doing is asking drivers to learn a new way of interacting with their cars.”
Timing is critical. Not only does drunk driving kill thousands of people each year and cost the country billions of dollars, final regulations need to be standardized by November 2024.
Judging by the number of questions NHTSA raises in its notice, achieving this goal may be difficult. The agency is raising all sorts of thorny questions, as well as seeking further comment on driver monitoring and the definition of “passive.” For example, if the start/stop button has a touch sensor, how does it know that the driver is pressing it? If the system determines that the driver is too drunk to start the car, Should you prevent your car from starting? What if the driver is trying to escape a wildfire?
“This is very complex rulemaking,” Strassberger said. “There are a lot of details that the agency needs to get right.”