Could Alcohol Rehab Be Your Future Car’s Destination?

Nissan, Saab and Volvo have been researching built-in breathalyzer-type detection systems that could help keep drunk drivers off the road. In some versions, if you fail the test the car won’t start. Now that’s a great idea, but I think it would be even better to add some more cool technology that a) positively IDs the driver, b) counts how often you’re trying to drive stoned, and c) if you’re over a predetermined limit, the car calls the nearest treatment center, drives you there, parks out front and honks the horn for the alcohol rehab guys to come get you.

Okay, that’s kind of out there – maybe it’s something for the future. But even as it is now, there are big markets for this technology, such as commercial truck fleets, buses, and company fleet cars. And let’s not forget parents buying cars for their teenagers who want to keep their kids alive and out of alcohol rehab.

In the new Nissan concept car, alcohol-detection sensors check odor, sweat and driver awareness, issue a voice alert from the navigation system and lock up the ignition if necessary. It has odor sensors on the both the driver and passenger seats that can read alcohol levels. Another detector in the gear-shift knob measures the perspiration of the driver’s palm when starting the car (I can see the sales of driving gloves getting a boost).

Nissan’s car includes a camera that monitors alertness by eye scan, rings a bell and issues voice messages if something is amiss. The technology is still in development, but the company says the combination of detection systems will keep an eye on who’s behind the wheel. This will help ensure there’s no monkey business during the testing. Here again, I think a driver’s testing history should be captured so that a problem drinker can be encouraged to attend an alcohol rehab center.

Scandinavia has been out ahead for years in the efforts to reduce impaired driving. The idea for “designated drivers” originated there, and alcohol rehab is an accepted and acceptable part of life. Now both Saab and Volvo, the two Swedish high-end car manufacturers, have also been working on driver alcohol testing. In the Saab’s “Alcokey” system, not yet on the market, you breathe into a special mouthpiece to measure the level of alcohol in your breath, and a computer decides whether or not to allow the engine to start. Drivers are on the honor system – they could easily ask a tee-totaling passenger to take the test for them. Volvo’s breath test technology already equips 5,000 buses and trucks in Sweden and has been offered for several years. It’s “Alcolock” or “Multilock” systems include a breathalyzer-type unit mounted in the seat belt and an indicator on the dashboard that turns green or red depending on the results. It can also prevent the engine from starting if the test is failed.

At first glance, you might think that anyone with a drinking problem wouldn’t want one of these vehicles. But when you think about it a little more, it actually makes sense. Deep down, no one really wants to be a criminal or a danger to themselves and others. Having a car that warns you when you’ve had too much to drink, and particularly too much too often, could really help someone get the idea (in a nice, non-personal, non-judgmental way) that it’s time to get their problem handled and head for alcohol rehab.