Alcohol-testing cars less than a decade away

Vehicles that refuse to start unless the driver passes an alcohol breathalyzer test are closer than previously believed, with cars that check for intoxication tipped to hit the market within the next decade. Systems using both traditional "breath tubes" and new fingertip sensors are already in the pipeline, the WSJ reports, with manufacturers working with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) having "made more progress, faster, than we expected," according to Rob Strassburger, vice president for vehicle safety at the AAM. Yet while driver and passenger safety is the obvious concern, not everyone is keen on their car playing watchdog.

One group, representing Washington D.C. restaurants, argues that caution over liability around drink-driving accidents may prompt manufacturers to set lower limits to the locks than legally mandated. Since alcohol can take some time to enter the bloodstream, they argue, car companies or those behind the scanning systems themselves may be tempted to configure the blood alcohol limit below 0.08-percent, the current legal threshold in every US state.

That, it's suggested, could have the effect of leaving those drivers who do stick to recommended limits – such as a single glass of wine with dinner – falling foul of their in-car system while still actually legally "safe" to drive.

The NHTSA is not looking to push mandatory inclusion of alcohol lock systems in future cars, it claims, leaving adoption something that individual manufacturers or organizations are left to decide upon. One suggestion is that it will be car rental firms and fleet management that opt-in first, adding a discrete sensor to the dashboard that drivers must touch or blow into in order to meet all the criteria for rental.

Still, given some are still reluctant to even use safety belts, the idea of a car telling them that they're not in a fit condition to drive is unlikely to go down well. We may need to wait until cars can not only stop us from leaving the parking lot, but drive us home themselves – using technology such as Google's driverless cars - before such systems gain broader acceptance.