Nanny State

Your Next Car May Refuse To Start if It Thinks You've Had a Drink

Get ready to pay for new nanny-state technology and for bypassing the unwelcome intervention.


Warning lights and noises are a regular part of the driving experience in vehicles that increasingly nag us about tire pressure, seatbelts, and engine status. Sometimes the alerts are helpful, but a new round of innovations mandated by the infrastructure bill might disable our cars if built-in technology determines that we're intoxicated—or if, as seems inevitable, it just goes haywire. The one guarantee is that we'll have to pay for the added complexity as we're forced to use nanny-state systems jointly developed by the auto industry and the federal government.

"Not later than 3 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall issue a final rule prescribing a Federal motor vehicle safety standard under section 30111 of title 49, United States Code, that requires passenger motor vehicles manufactured after the effective date of that standard to be equipped with advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology," reads language buried in the massive and recently passed federal infrastructure bill.

The bill defines the technology as a system that can "passively monitor the performance of a driver of a motor vehicle to accurately identify whether that driver may be impaired" and "passively and accurately detect whether the blood alcohol concentration of a driver" is above 0.08 percent. If the system decides that a driver is being naughty, it will "prevent or limit motor vehicle operation if an impairment is detected."

Certainly not coincidentally, the auto industry recently unveiled technology that would satisfy the requirements of the bill by basically building a breathalyzer into every car.

"Today, the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, Inc. (ACTS), a Virginia non-profit, announced that the first product equipped with new alcohol detection technology will be available for open licensing in commercial vehicles for the first time ever, in late 2021," the group announced on June 2 of this year. "The new technology is the result of extensive research, development and testing by the DADSS Program, which is a public–private partnership between ACTS, which represents the world's leading automakers, and the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)."

For this first pass at integrating alcohol-detection technology into cars and trucks "drivers provide a puff of breath directed towards a small sensor, which can be outfitted in the steering column or side door trim." The initial system is intended for fleet vehicles, though the federal legislation makes it clear that the goal is to build the technology into all new automobiles within the next few years. Future implementations of the technology are intended to be less intrusive, monitoring blood-alcohol content without requiring any actions by the driver (by infrared light in one implementation). ACTS promises that the system will be able to distinguish between drivers and passengers. If an excessive blood-alcohol concentration is detected, the technology "will prevent a vehicle from starting or unlocking a vehicle's transmission," according to the group.

Maybe advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology will work as advertised, but history suggests the technology will run up against the limitations of all real-world systems in terms of glitchy technology and uniform mandates across a diverse society. Those of a certain age may remember that seat belt interlocks were briefly mandatory in the 1970s, until an infuriated public pushed back against technology that prevented cars from starting unless they buckled up, or if the sensors just went bad.

"The result was that grandmas, grocery bags and guard dogs alike triggered the no-start unless the belts for the front seats they occupied were fastened first," Mike Davis, who liked the law, wrote for The Detroit Bureau in 2009. "Plus, people rejected the Big Brother attitude of forcing them to buckle up before they'd bought into the notion."

I distinctly remember my father getting pointers from a car salesman on how to disable the interlock on a new car purchase. That's become common practice as our vehicles become more nanny-ish, prompting drivers to bypass the more annoying features of purchases intended for transportation rather than their ability to nag. The internet is full of tutorials on how to disable seat belt alarms and EPA-required idle start-stop features. No doubt, clever tinkerers and entrepreneurs will quickly offer workarounds for the mandatory alcohol-detection systems. But they'll still be in our cars as potential points of failure, and as impositions for which we'll have to pay even if we bypass the technology.

"It's going to be expensive," Carla Bailo, CEO of the Center for Automotive Research told AutoWise about the alcohol-detection interlock in August. "People are going to cheat. It will be tough to manage."

How expensive is uncertain, since the technology is in early stages. But technology inserted between the driver and the operation of the vehicle will certainly cost something. Idle start-stop technology reportedly adds $300-$400 to the cost of a vehicle and alcohol detectors will be an extra expense on top of that—soon to be supplemented by the return of seat belt interlocks on at least some vehicles. That will be a fun addition to purchases that have already soared in price over the last year. Vehicles designed to second-guess our judgment and bully us into compliance don't come cheap.

In addition to expense, advanced drunk and impaired driving prevention technology represents a new degree of automated intervention and surveillance. As deputized agents of the state, our cars will decide, accurately or not, whether we're drunk, and potentially record that finding for authorities to access.

It is "extremely important that a technology designed to control human behavior not be imposed before it is clear that civil liberties are protected and the technology works properly – without false positives where law-abiding drivers can't start their cars and false negatives where law-breaking drivers over the legal alcohol limit rely on the technology to make the dangerous assumption that they are safe to drive," the American Highway Users Alliance objected in a letter sent to lawmakers in 2020 about an earlier version of the requirement. "We also have privacy concerns regarding the government-mandated location identification called for in the bill, how collection and storage of driver alcohol data would work, and who would have the rights to such data." 

The alcohol-detection mandate "will give law enforcement another tool to invade everyone's privacy as soon as they enter a vehicle" the National Motorists Association bluntly added this month.

So, start saving your spare change. You'll need the extra cash for you next car purchase in order to afford the nanny-state interventions that you don't want, and the clever and probably illegal techniques for bypassing the surveillance technology that you wish you didn't need.