Mandatory drunk driver detection technology is coming

(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Assuming Joe Biden ever gets around to signing the recently passed infrastructure bill, there are any number of dubious poison pills hidden inside of it that go well beyond the basics of fixing roads and bridges and potholes. One of them is highlighted in the Associated Press today and while it technically does relate to the travel industry, it’s going to be problematic in a number of ways. One portion of the bill is yet another government mandate to the automotive industry. As soon as 2026, car manufacturers may have to include technology allowing the car to determine whether or not the driver is impaired by alcohol and prevent them from putting the car in motion. While the desire to prevent drunk driving accidents and deaths is laudable, the government may be asking for more than the current state of technology can deliver.

Congress has created a new requirement for automakers: Find a high-tech way to keep drunken people from driving cars.

It’s one of the mandates along with a burst of new spending aimed at improving auto safety amid escalating road fatalities in the $1 trillion infrastructure package that President Joe Biden is expected to sign soon.

Under the legislation, monitoring systems to stop intoxicated drivers would roll out in all new vehicles as early as 2026, after the Transportation Department assesses the best form of technology to install in millions of vehicles and automakers are given time to comply.

I’m just going to skip past all of the usual warnings about dystopian futures where our technology is vastly smarter than we are and get to the reasons this mandate is problematic. The first and biggest roadblock to such systems is one we’ve discussed here before and it deals with the fact that the technology Congress is demanding simply isn’t ready for prime time yet. There is no fully functional “passive” system available that will detect the blood-alcohol content of a driver attempting to start their car.

There are “active” systems available that generally require the driver to blow into a tube to unlock the ignition. But those systems require frequent recalibration and can easily default to rendering the car unusable even if the driver is well below the legal limit. There’s also going to be some stigma attached to the idea of making everyone blow into a tube before going for a drive even if they never drink alcohol at all.

There have been prototypes developed that passively detect the driver’s sweat or breath and attempt to measure the presence of alcohol, but every independent test of those systems has shown that they just don’t work. They are also completely unable to distinguish between alcohol from the driver or their passenger, rendering the idea of having designated drivers useless.

Further, this legislation appears to completely ignore the fact that not all DUI charges stem from alcohol consumption. With the expanding legalization of marijuana, more pot smokers are getting tagged for driving under the influence. Our current technology is completely unable to determine whether or not a pot smoker is actively impaired at any given moment or just has residual levels in their system from smoking some weed the night before or even a week prior.

And while we’ve brought this next issue up before, it bears repeating. Your very smart car with its sensors and artificial intelligence will be engaged in collecting data on you. How often do you show up with alcohol in your system? How much do you drink? All of that data will be collected someplace and the current generation of cars is already in constant contact with their manufacturers. All of that data is worth money to the right people. And in the wrong hands, who knows what sort of blackmail or other mischiefs might ensue? And none of this even touches on the fact that these new “features” are going to further drive up the cost of a new car.

The bill does allow for the possibility that the deadline for including this new technology could be moved back if it’s determined that the industry isn’t able to comply by the required date. So it’s possible that this unpleasant scenario may still wind up being a fair distance down the road. But it’s obviously coming at some point. Prepare to have Big Brother monitoring your drinking habits, folks. You know… for your own good.