The government has given the NHTSA three years to work it out.
Congress recently approved a massive infrastructure bill that will have huge implications within the automotive industry.
One of the mandates in this bill could drastically reduce the number of road crashes caused by drunk driving. According to the NHTSA, more than 10,000 people died in crashes caused by alcohol-impaired drivers. Drunk driving deaths declined in previous years, but they reached a plateau in the last decade. This is a fairly worrying fact.
Basically, the bill calls for a piece of technology to stop drivers from driving drunk. The bill is giving the NHTSA three years to finalize the rules of the technology and then another two years for manufacturers to come up with a production-ready system.
This is not the first time the NHTSA approached this topic. It started with a Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety in 2015, but the project went nowhere. The NHTSA has a habit of missing deadlines, though some of the required technology it has to implement is ridiculous.
The main problem is that the technology currently does not exist. You get breathalyzer locks for existing offenders, but such a system is not practical for everyday driving.
Several involved parties spoke to the Washington Post about the new technology. "This technology will essentially eliminate drunken driving," said Alex Otte, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "It's entirely passive," Otte said. "For those being safe, it won't change the relationship with their car in any way."
The NHTSA has been working with the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety (ACTS) on systems that can detect alcohol via drivers' blood or breath. This project is called The Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, and it has been testing sensors for the last few years. It hopes to have a road-ready system by 2024. Volvo already has a similar system, but it's not yet available in any of their cars, including the new-generation XC40 Recharge.
The other option is to rely on existing driver assistance systems that monitor the driver. Think of technology like drowsiness detection, lane keep assist and front collision warning. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation is against this, stating that camera-based systems are not reliable enough and could cause a backlash from car owners. Therefore, it prefers the blood and breath method.
"New technologies, especially those intended to provide a safety benefit, are subject to much scrutiny," wrote Scott Schmidt, the organization's vice president for safety policy. "When such technologies impact the autonomy of the driver, they require broad public acceptance."
We do understand what the Alliance for Automotive Innovation is concerned about. We've driven multiple cars with drowsy driver detection, and some of them don't work that well. A camera-based system might assume a driver is drunk, even though they've just had a long day. Parents with a newborn will be regarded as drunk all the time.
The chief of the alliance, John Bozzella, went on record saying that he appreciated that the bill gave regulators the flexibility to assess the best technological solution.
Ross Strassburger, the chief executive of ACTS, shared some of the research his group has done. According to ACTS, around three-quarters of drivers are on board for a breath/blood-based system. "We're starting in a very good place," Strassburger said. "Obviously, we need to win over a few more folks."