NHTSA’s Anti-Drunken-Driving Push Begs Questions of Enforcement

NHTSA’s rule-making process on mandating systems in new vehicles to detect drunken drivers poses lots of questions about privacy and outcomes.

David Kiley, Senior Editor

January 16, 2024

4 Min Read
Bosch eyetracking
Bosch system analyzes breath-alcohol content while scanning driver's eyes to determine sobriety level.

LAS VEGAS – Automakers and suppliers are readying systems to detect a driver’s alcohol level in the cabin of the car, per a push by NHTSA to reduce drunken-driving fatalities.

If the government agency mandates the systems, it could be an annual $800 million-$1.6 billion business based on 16 million annual new-vehicle sales, as company officials say the systems will cost between $50 and $100 per vehicle.

Bosch and Magna are among the suppliers showing systems at CES 2024 that combine breath detectors and eye scanners.

While the technology is already here and can be integrated into vehicles very easily, the question that will follow deployment of such systems is, “Then what?”

“It will be up to automakers, regulators and perhaps state and local officials to determine whether the car will be drivable if the driver tests positive for alcohol over the legal limit,” says John Nowinski, product area lead for interior sensing solutions for Bosch North America.

The breathalyzer part of the systems detects the presence of ethanol in the cabin in 10 seconds or less. In the case of the Magna International system, for example, if alcohol is detected, then a camera-sensor, already in many vehicles to detect drowsiness, will scan the driver’s eyes to determine the level of sobriety based on reading eye movement that historically is a determinant of being over the legal limit of .08% for adult drivers.

Cockpit-embedded sensors, placed in proximity to the driver, measure and quantify the alcohol and carbon dioxide levels in diluted exhalations from the driver. The technology is intended to passively detect an intoxicated driver with a blood alcohol concentration at or above the legal limit of 0.08 percent in all states except Utah, where the legal limit is 0.05 percent.

“As we continue to support the company’s vision of advancing mobility for everyone, our team is focused on delivering active safety innovations that help reduce accidents and fatalities,” said Bill Snider, President of Electronics at Magna. “We are working with our customers and the industry to take a significant step forward in making the roads safer for all who share them.”

Citing data that shows 28 Americans die in drunken-driving crashes every day, NHTSA has submitted advance notice of proposed rule-making to mandate systems in newly manufactured vehicles.

drunk driving lede (003).jpeg

drunk driving lede (003)

The 2022 Infrastructure and Investment and Jobs Act mandated that NHTSA look into this area as the law also increased NHTSA’s budget by 50%. The law requires the regulator to issue a final rule within three years prescribing a Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) requiring that passenger motor vehicles manufactured after the effective date of that standard be equipped with advanced drunken- and impaired-driving prevention technology. If necessary, NHTSA can extend the period for three years.

The advance notice of rule-making is the first step toward Congress putting the mandate into law. But there is more review work for government officials to do, and debate and comment is yet to come concerning the accuracy of the systems and potential liabilities if the vehicle is wired to be immobilized after a positive reading.

Bosch’s Nowinski says there are “edge cases” that will have to be debated and discussed, such as a scenario in which someone who posts a positive reading, but would be better off being able to drive at least a short distance if there was a carjacking afoot.

The European Union attempted to mandate a locking device on new vehicles if intoxication is detected. The EU, however, backed off being as strict as they originally intended and the systems are not required in Europe.

NHTSA now is in a comment period and is asking the public and industry about whether drivers will accept the potential for false positives that could prevent sober drivers from operating a vehicle. It also wants to know how the government should educate the public about privacy concerns with the technology. Sensors can collect and store more data and protecting that information will likely be vital to gaining consumer acceptance.

NHTSA estimates that besides the loss of life, drunken-driving crashes cost Americans roughly $280 billion a year.

About the Author(s)

David Kiley

Senior Editor, WardsAuto

David Kiley is an award winning journalist. Prior to joining WardsAuto, Kiley held senior editorial posts at USA Today, Businessweek, AOL Autos/Autoblog and Adweek, as well as being a contributor to Forbes, Fortune, Popular Mechanics and more.

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