Back in 2014, I wrote a blog looking a few years into the future, to the year 2020.  I definitely did not have “global pandemic” on my bingo board, but in some ways, I wasn’t that far off.  Here’s a look back:

The year is 2020.  You and your friends were out celebrating an event at a bar and no one had a sober driver, but not to worry! You have an autonomous car that will safely drive itself back to your home while you’re curled up in the fetal position on the floorboards regretting the last few drinks.  Out of nowhere, police emergency lights go off, and your robot car comes to a stop.  What’s the problem?  The cloud of alcohol vapor from your breathing has filled the car and been detected by law enforcement’s high-tech laser beams.

Yes, you read that right: lasers that detect alcohol vapor inside a closed vehicle.  Much like the autonomous cars, these advanced alcohol detection devices have already been designed by a team of Polish researchers and are in the testing phases.  According to a recent paper in the Journal of Applied Remote Sensing, the Institute of Optoelectronics at the Military University of Technology in Warsaw has successfully designed a system that can detect the presence of exhaled alcohol vapor in a passing car.  The laser beam is projected at the vehicle using various detectors and reflecting mirrors.  “The monitoring beam goes through the car two times,” during which point in time any alcohol vapor within the cabin of the car will absorb the laser beam.  If the beam is absorbed, the machine then captures the license plate number of the vehicle and relays a message about the presence of alcohol vapor to law enforcement further away.

This machine is sort of like a photo radar camera for DUIs, but any detection would obviously have to be further investigated by the police.  Although the researchers note that they have used calculations for particular BACs, the vapor that a person breathes out may not be equivalent to the person’s actual BAC.”

So autonomous vehicles?  With the advancements that Waymo, Tesla, and Volvo have made in the recent past and the funding behind these projects, robot cars are on the not-too-distant horizon.  Lasers that detect alcohol vapor?  Well, you read about the device above, but to date, we haven’t seen much more about this possibility until now.

Congress is contemplating the massive infrastructure bill, and one of the provisions that has been praised by Mothers Against Drunk Driving would “mandate a passive technology to prevent intoxicated drivers from starting vehicles.”  The bill cites the need for this technology by referencing fatalities due to impaired individuals on the road.  The goal is for this anti-drunk-driving technology to be developed and in place within the next 5 years, with a follow up report to Congress within 10 years.  So are we talking alcohol detecting lasers?  Perhaps, but more likely, a sensor within the passenger compartment of your car that checks for alcohol in exhaled air or alcohol-detecting infrared light in the start button for your fingertips.

I certainly see issues with each of these, for example, a sober driver transporting intoxicated individuals or bypassing the button by using a remote-start.  And what about people who are under the influence of drugs while driving?  (Let’s not forget the attempts to make a marijuana breathalyzer.)  What would happen if the vehicle detected alcohol?  Would it prevent the car from starting or shut the car down mid drive?    Would it relay alcohol information to the police and result in arrests without the police witnessing any traffic violations?  This particular type of enforcement—such as stopping a vehicle without any evidence of violations like speeding, improper turns, etc.—is highly controversial and understandably so.  Although our Supreme Court has determined that DUI checkpoints are lawful, there is a barrage of rules that have to accompany the checkpoints in order for them to be approved and not be a violation of your constitutional right to be free from unreasonable searches.  The same rules would likely need to be developed if this alcohol detecting automotive technology were mandated here in the United States.  

Arguments have been made that this proposed technology would be akin to requiring drivers to use seat belts in cars, but the consequences for not using seat belts are civil traffic violations here in Arizona while DUI arrests, charges, and convictions carry jail sentences, monetary fines, and mandatory driver’s license suspensions among other consequences. When the law, like it is in Arizona, allows someone to drive after drinking as long as their BAC isn’t over the .08 legal limit and are not impaired to the slightest degree, how do we align this technology with the law?

Even though we all desire to make our roads as safe as possible and value technological advancements designed to do this, we also need to preserve the rights and freedoms we have fought so hard to establish and maintain.