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Companies are working on technology to get cars to detect and prevent drunk driving

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What if cars could stop people from driving drunk? In fact, a new federal law requires just that, starting about five years from now. Some companies have already been figuring out how to do it. NPR's Camila Domonoske takes a look.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: There are a few different ways that cars could detect drunk driving. They're all still works in progress. One group of researchers supported by both the auto industry and the government have been working on a supersensitive kind of breathalyzer.

FERHAT DJOUADI: How you doing?

DOMONOSKE: Hi - doing great. How are you?

At a press event in Richmond, Va., mechanical engineer Ferhat Djouadi slips behind the wheel of a Chevy Malibu to demonstrate. It's 10 a.m. on a Wednesday, and everyone here is sober, so he sprays some Listerine in his mouth to trick the sensors.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOTTLE SPRITZING)

DOMONOSKE: It's got a lot of alcohol in it. He says the words to activate the system...

DJOUADI: I am driven to protect. Verify me.

DOMONOSKE: ...And blows a puff of air in the general direction of the dashboard.

DJOUADI: I like to refer to it as a candle blow - you know, just kind of a (exhaling).

DOMONOSKE: Eventually, engineers want to make the sensors good enough to sample regular breaths. But for now, Djouadi still has to puff. When the car catches a whiff of that mouthwash...

AUTOMATED VOICE: Warning - alcohol detected. Use alternate safe ride. Car not started.

DOMONOSKE: This tech is being tested in trucks right now. The same team also has a prototype of a touch-based system. It would shine a light into a driver's finger, maybe while they're touching an ignition button, and measure the alcohol content of their blood. Or there's also a totally different approach that might work using cameras that some vehicles already have. Sam Abuelsamid is an analyst with Guidehouse Insights.

SAM ABUELSAMID: They consist of a small camera that's typically mounted on the steering column that's looking at the driver, and they use infrared so that it can see in the dark. If you're driving at night or if you're wearing sunglasses, it can still see your eyes.

DOMONOSKE: These cameras make sure that drivers are watching the road, but they could look for other things.

LAVONDA BROWN: Your eyes - they show it all. It's just a matter of knowing how to look for it.

DOMONOSKE: LaVonda Brown's Ph.D. research used computers to watch people's eyes to see where their attention was focused. But then she was in a relationship with someone with a drinking problem, and she realized his eyes told her a lot more than just where he was looking. Some of those signs can be measured. A drunk person's eyes get glossy. Their pupils respond differently to light. And think of a police officer asking a driver to follow a pencil with their eyes.

BROWN: They're looking for this involuntary twitching that happens in the corner. Depending on how fast that happens, how far from the center that happens, that also tells us what you're under the influence of and by how much.

DOMONOSKE: Eventually, Brown founded a company called EyeGage. It's gathering data to build software that considers all these signs and detects intoxication just from looking at eyes. All of these tools are still being refined. Regulators will have years to figure out what exactly should be required in vehicles, and there will likely be some pushback. The ACLU has already raised privacy concerns. But whatever the ultimate approach is, safety advocates are very excited.

DAVID HARKEY: I actually think this particular technology could save more lives than airbags.

DOMONOSKE: David Harkey is the president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

HARKEY: We're talking about more than 10,000 people that are losing their lives annually.

DOMONOSKE: So several years from now, if all new cars can detect drunk driving, Harkey says it will save a lot of lives. Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TSHA'S "SACRED") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.