A new generation of technology is taking shape around systems that prevent cars from operating if the driver has been drinking. Researchers say the new technology is so promising that they are comparing it to the seat belt invention, in terms of its potential.

This new cutting-edge technology has two approaches:

Breath. A system measures blood alcohol levels from a driver’s breath. The levels would be detected from sensors mounted in front of the driver.

Touch. This method would screen for alcohol when the driver touches the start button, or another designated surface in the car.

This new technology is scheduled to be ready in the next five to eight years, and at this point, experts expect the system will be an optional safety feature rather than required equipment in new cars. Though, at this point, it’s yet to be seen how much it could add to the price of a new car, and it’s expected to be in the range of other safety features like collision-avoidance braking and lane departure warnings systems.

So how does this new technology work?

The technology is being designed to sensor and measure the concentration of carbon dioxide and ethanol molecules being exhaled from the body. The molecules give off a certain wavelength when put under infrared light beams, which will be placed in the car.

The sensors will then act as a tracking system to measure the ratio of carbon dioxide molecules to ethanol molecules produced by the driver. If the ratio hits a certain threshold of ethanol to carbon, the car won’t start.

The touch-based system will use infrared light that will shine on the driver’s skin. Upon touching a sensor, a portion of this light will then reflect back to a system in the touch pad. The reflection can tell the system what chemical properties are present in the skin, including ethanol levels in the tissue. If the levels register as 0.08% or more, the car won’t start.

Drunk driving-related accidents kill about 10,000 people a year in the U.S. according to JT Griffin, government affairs officer for MADD. He believes the new generation of drunk driving prevention features will make a significant impact on reducing the death toll.

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