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Design, political issues slow push for breath tests in cars

Neeraj Dalal evaluates sensors at QinetiQ North America in Waltham. Their size is a big issue. Neeraj Dalal evaluates sensors at QinetiQ North America in Waltham. Their size is a big issue.
By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / September 6, 2010

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Almost every state, including Massachusetts, has a law requiring some convicted drunk drivers to install ignition locks in their vehicles. Drivers are forced to blow into a tube connected to a device that measures the blood-alcohol level. If a reading is too high, the engine won’t start.

Now, an effort is underway to develop a new generation of blood-alcohol detection devices that work with just the touch of a button or require no driver interaction whatsoever, automatically analyzing the breath of anyone who gets behind the wheel.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, an auto manufacturers group, are funding a $10 million study to create the high-tech instruments, which they hope will become a standard feature in cars and trucks, much like seat belts and air bags.

The technology could save 8,000 to 9,000 lives annually, said Rob Strassburger, a vice president at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which is helping to fund the effort.

“That’s quite significant,’’ he said. “It’s approaching the gold standard [of safety], the seat belt, which saves about 15,000 lives a year.’’

The devices are under development at QinetiQ North America, a Waltham defense contractor that is testing prototypes as part of a five-year trial ending in 2013.

While critics suggest that such detection devices would encroach on personal freedoms and add to the expense of buying and maintaining a car, Congress is considering a proposal to fund the program with an additional $10 million.

Engineers at QinetiQ said they realize drivers will resist having to blow into a tube every time they want to drive somewhere. If the project is to stand a chance of gaining widespread commercial acceptance, they said, it has to work seamlessly and without drivers’ active involvement.

QinetiQ solicited prototypes from various companies, including Alcohol Countermeasure Systems Inc., of Toronto, and Autoliv Development AV, of Sweden. The instruments submitted by both companies measure ethanol in the moisture of human breath and use the results to calculate blood-alcohol levels.

Bud Zaouk, technical manager for the project at QinetiQ, said both products could be developed to take breath samples through an opening in a car dashboard the size of an MP3 jack. If such a device did not measure a significant level of alcohol in the air, the driver could start the car — without being reminded he had just been tested.

But there are logistical hurdles to overcome. Most significantly, the two devices are too large to seem invisible. The Toronto prototype is slightly bigger than a breadbox, and Autoliv’s is the size of a recipe box. To be marketable, the instruments would have to be scaled down to the size of a cellphone, or smaller.

A third model, developed by TruTouch Technologies of New Mexico, could measure blood alcohol through the skin, using a sensor and infrared light to detect ethanol.

QinetiQ engineers are trying to figure out if there is a way to use the various devices in tandem, or whether they could incorporate a TruTouch sensor in an ignition button or a car key.

Cost is another factor. Strassburger said there are no solid estimates about how much alcohol-detection devices could add to the cost of a vehicle. But auto-safety advocates think parents of teenagers might pay extra for the option.

“If we’re successful the customer will want this,’’ said Susan Ferguson, program manager for the auto industry coalition.

Still, critics have their doubts about the feasibility of such complex technology, and question whether it would be an intrusion on personal freedom.

“We just don’t think it’s appropriate that people who have no problem with drunken driving and impairment should have to be subjected to having to have this kind of a device,’’ said Jim Baxter, president of the National Motorists Association, a nonprofit group that advocates for motorists’ rights and better driver training programs. “It will create more problems than it was ever intended to solve.’’

Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Edmunds.com, an automotive website, said consumers could grow to loathe such devices if they malfunction in the hands of sober drivers, preventing them from using their car.

Brauer also wondered how an instrument would be able to discern between a person’s breath and spilled beer on clothing.

“It’s unnecessary,’’ he said. “You’re putting time and money into things that would be better solved through existing education and legal efforts.’’

But advocates say Mothers Against Drunk Driving and police agencies support research into making the devices palatable for the mainstream.

J.T. Griffin, a spokesman for the national office of MADD, said the group would like testing instruments to be universally installed in cars and trucks.

The group has tried “the education route’’ for 30 years, Griffin said of its efforts to end drunken driving, yet intoxicated drivers accounted for about 32 percent of all highway fatalities in the United States last year.

“MADD is very excited about this,’’ he said of the prototypes. “This could really eliminate drunk driving in America.’’

QinetiQ’s Zaouk said developers are also trying to better understand how people of various sizes metabolize alcohol. As part of their research, they have paid subjects to drink heavily — ingesting nine shots of vodka (mixed with orange juice) over 20 minutes — in a controlled setting in QinetiQ’s lab. Subjects lounge in a comfortable recliner as they drink and watch television. A doctor overseeing the process extracts blood samples at intervals.

But it’s no party, Zaouk said. There is pressure to build something unique, and the researchers know automakers are watching closely, awaiting the test results.

“The whole world is looking at what we’re doing,’’ Zaouk said.

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwoolhouse@globe.com.

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