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Littleton tech startup wants to make drunken driving impossible

A detail of a sensor on the steering wheel column of a test vehicle. Abdullatif "Bud" Zaouk, president and chief executive of KEA Technologies, has been developing technology to prevent people from driving while drunk.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Drunken driving is already illegal. But in a few years, it might become impossible.

That’s what Abdullatif Zaouk has in mind. Zaouk — his friends call him “Bud” — is president and chief executive of KEA Technologies, a Littleton company that designs safety systems for the automotive and railroad industries. These days, KEA’s top priority is a system that will prevent a car from moving if there’s an intoxicated driver at the wheel — the type of system that will become mandatory in new cars starting as soon as 2026, thanks to a provision of last year’s federal infrastructure bill.

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Zaouk has been working on the problem for over a decade, as program manager of the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety (DADSS), a public-private partnership with $65 million in support from the auto industry and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. He’s also getting vital assistance from McLean Hospital in Belmont, one of the world’s leading research centers in drug and alcohol abuse, which provides test subjects to calibrate the system.

Together, they hope to perfect a system that could make a dent in the massive death toll caused by drunk driving — about 10,000 fatalities per year in the United States alone.

“This is one of our key biggest projects,” said Zaouk. “It’s the closest one to my heart.”

The DADSS system made its real-world debut in December, when the giant trucking firm Schneider began installing the technology in eight of its vehicles. The company plans to put a total of 1 million miles on the trucks to test the system’s reliability and toughness. And although the new federal law doesn’t specifically mandate the use of DADSS sensors, KEA’s years of federally funded research gives it an inside track.

Zaouk’s team is working on two kinds of sensors. There’s a passive system that can detect alcohol as it’s exhaled by the driver, just like the traditional breath analyzers used by police. The ones in the Littleton lab and in the Schneider truck tests don’t require users to blow into a tube. Instead, they blow into an air scoop mounted on the driver’s side door or the steering column. One good puff is all it takes to get a reading.

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But Zaouk said that by year’s end they’ll be using an advanced version that works while the driver breathes normally. Even if he’s seated alongside a friend who’s been drinking, the sensors are accurate enough to determine whether it’s the driver who’s intoxicated. (Zaouk said they’re still tuning the system to recognize when the driver is sober, but several passengers are drunk.)

The second method features a laser sensor that shines light through the driver’s fingertip, like the oxygen sensors you can buy at any drugstore. Those sensors use the reflected light to measure the oxygen in your blood. The DADSS version uses the same technique to calculate your blood alcohol level. Think of the push-button starters found in many cars. This sensor could be built into that button, instantly shooting a laser at your fingertip to determine whether it’s safe to let you drive.

Zaouk said the laser technology is quite accurate. The real difficulty lies in making a version that’s small enough, durable enough, and cheap enough to be installed in millions of cars. The current version is about the size of half a bar of soap. But that’s still a tight fit for the crammed dashboards of today’s cars. KEA hopes to field an extremely small version that would be embedded in a car’s steering wheel.

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KEA expects to have the breath sensor ready for deployment in passenger cars by 2024, and the touch sensor a year later.

Dr Bud Zaouk, the president and CEO of KEA Technologies Inc., has been developing technology to prevent people from driving while drunk. A new federal law will make this tech mandatory in cars starting in 2026. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

These aren’t the only tech options for detecting drunkenness. For instance, a Georgia company called EyeGage is developing a system that uses a camera aimed at the driver’s eyes. The system uses artificial intelligence software that’s been trained to recognize signs that the driver has been using alcohol or marijuana. (It’s possible that some carmakers might adopt both the EyeGage and DADSS systems.)

But whatever the system, a key question is what the car will do if its driver is intoxicated.

“That’s not our call,” said Zaouk. “We’re making the sensor. That’s for the automaker to decide how to apply that sensor.”

In theory, the car’s engine management computer could refuse to start the engine if the driver’s blood alcohol level breaches the legal limit — .08 percent in Massachusetts and most other states. But Zaouk said it would be better to disengage the transmission while allowing the engine to run. This could be done on vehicles with computer-controlled transmissions. That way, a drunk passenger could stay warm in winter or cool in summer, say, until they sober up or help arrives.

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To test the breath analyzer, Zaouk rounds up willing subjects who don’t mind a few drinks. That’s where McLean Hospital comes in. “I jumped at the chance,” said Scott Lukas, director of the hospital’s behavioral psychopharmacology research lab, who’s spent nearly 40 years testing the effects of drugs and alcohol on people.

The hospital recruits healthy nonalcoholics and pays them up to $250 for a day’s work. Each is seated in a room with a breath alcohol monitor. The test subject is hooked up to a catheter that automatically draws a small amount of blood every five minutes. Then each subject gets a carefully measured amount of an alcoholic beverage.

The McLean researchers compare the exact level of alcohol in the blood with the reading coming from the breath sensor. It’s the only way to ensure the system is accurate.

Next, KEA and McLean put the systems inside actual cars — 42 Chevy Malibus provided by General Motors. In the test cars, breath sensors are put near the front-seat passenger and the driver. A sober person drives the car while a passenger who’s had a few drinks rides shotgun. A digital readout on the dashboard shows whether the system is accurately detecting the passenger’s level of intoxication. These tests also let engineers confirm that the system works in all sorts of weather conditions.

The federal law mandating antidrunken driving systems has raised eyebrows among civil libertarians. Former GOP congressman Bob Barr has called it “a privacy disaster in the making.” Barr said that the law does not set standards for managing the data collected by the system. He warned it might be shared with law enforcement agencies or insurance companies without the driver’s permission.

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Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst for the American Civil Liberties Union, raised similar concerns.

“How is the data stored, where is it stored, how long is it kept for?” Stanley asked. He said that any such system should be designed solely to prevent drunken driving; any information collected in the process should be immediately discarded.

That’s fine with Zaouk, who said that privacy fears are unfounded. The carmakers and the federal government have agreed that the finished system must contain features to prevent unauthorized release of data. He said the data collected by the system is retained just long enough to confirm whether the driver is sober or intoxicated. After that, it’ll be deleted.

For Zaouk, a digital sobriety system isn’t about spying on drivers, but about saving lives, including those of his three children. “By the time they start driving,” he said, “I want this in their cars.”


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.