Safety regulators working on cars that can detect drunk drivers

NHTSA's Nat Beuse: “Lots of companies are out there trying to make the situation better.” Photo credit: Greg Horvath

UPDATED: 8/4/14 4:43 pm ET - adds details

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. -- Federal safety regulators are working with suppliers on a “seamless” technology that can detect alcohol by touch and breath and can be used to reduce or eliminate alcohol-related vehicle crashes.

Speaking at the 2013 Management Briefing Seminars here, Nat Beuse, associate administrator for vehicle safety research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the alcohol detection technology is one of several his agency is studying to lower traffic fatalities.

Beuse provided no details as to how it would work or which suppliers were involved in the technology, but said a seamless alcohol detection system which was integrated into vehicles would reduce the number of alcohol-related fatalities on U.S. roadways.

NHTSA for the last few years has been stepping up its efforts to push technology solutions to drunken driving.

The agency said in October 2011 it awarded a $2.2 million contract to safety products supplier Takata Corp. to develop a device that measures a motorist's sobriety. Another safety products supplier, Autoliv, is also working on the sobriety systems.

Though still under development and in need of testing, the alcohol detection technology could be available for implementation by 2018. Whether it would disable a vehicle or simply issue an alert is a policy question that must still be determined, federal officials said.

Vehicle fatalities in total have been declining in the United States over the last several decades, but still kill over 33,000 people a year and incur a cost estimated at $827 billion annually, Beuse said. Increased levels of vehicle autonomy promise to lower both numbers in coming years.

Emergency braking

Beuse pointed to automatic emergency braking as an example of a newly-implemented technology that promises to reduce the number and severity of future vehicle crashes.

The emergency braking system uses radars and other vehicle sensory information to detect an impending collision and apply the brakes automatically to avoid contact or reduce its severity. A number of automakers have begun integrating the automatic braking systems into their vehicles, including Mercedes-Benz. Beuse said NTHSA believes the technology has the potential to greatly reduce fatalities and should be more widespread.

“Automatic emergency braking has the potential to have a great impact on safety,” Beuse said, adding that “33,000 deaths is way too many. It’s too much of a toll on society.”

Automakers have been working on various levels of autonomous driving technologies for decades, but only recently began implementing those systems into mass market vehicles. He said crash data shows that human factors are the most significant contributor to vehicle collisions and fatalities annually, and that increased vehicle autonomy could reduce those factors.

Beuse said suppliers and automakers have been working together for decades to improve overall vehicle safety and reduce fatalities.

Said Beuse: “Lots of companies are out there trying to make the situation better.”

You can reach Larry P. Vellequette at lvellequette@crain.com -- Follow Larry P. on Twitter: @LarryVellequett

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