Bud Zaouk bends over the laptop-size breathalyzer on his laboratory bench and softly exhales. In less than two seconds, the machine displays a set of numbers, all zeroes.
It’s official: Zaouk is sober, capable of driving a car legally. Now comes the hard part: installing a similar breathalyzer in millions of cars, in one of the most ambitious efforts to reduce drunken driving and cut down on the number of deaths from car accidents caused by intoxication, as many as 10,000 a year.
Zaouk, director of transportation solutions at QinetiQ North America in Waltham, said his research team is less than a decade away from the biggest improvement in automotive safety since 1966, when seat belts became mandatory in all vehicles in the United States.
“This is our next leap,” he said. “This is the next opportunity we have to save people.”
A native of Lebanon who spent his childhood summers at his grandfather’s auto assembly plant in Ghana, Zaouk’s career is about making transportation systems safer. And not just cars — he is trying to reengineer railroads, as well.
He’s working on a system to detect heat stress in rails and repair them before they crack, and a new kind of electronic horn for locomotives that directs the sound to just the area around a railroad crossing.
“Bud’s a very smart individual,” said Jason Lurz, the director of rail operations and maintenance at an Italian transport technology firm who has worked with Zaouk. “When you talk to him and you start spit-balling ideas, you can see the clockwork in his head start clicking, and his eyes start getting big and bright, and he gets this little grin on his face.”
Zaouk is the program manager of DADSS, or Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, an effort jointly sponsored by the Department of Transportation and 17 major carmakers to research anti-drunken driving technology.
DADSS is working on two different techniques.
One relies on the familiar breathalyzer technology used by police to conduct roadside sobriety tests. A standard police unit requires the driver to blow forcefully into a plastic tube. Zaouk is developing a version that would let a driver breathe normally. Sensors mounted inside the car, such as on the steering wheel, would pick up enough exhaled gases to measure the driver’s blood-alcohol content.
In addition, DADSS is developing a system based on technology pioneered by TruTouch Technologies Inc., of Sudbury, which beams a laser light through a person’s finger to measure blood alcohol. It’s designed for use in hazardous industries such as transportation and energy production. Workers can “check in” at the start of a shift, using the TruTouch system to confirm they’re not intoxicated.
Zaouk is working with TruTouch on a version that would be built into the push-button starter switches found on many new vehicles. The button would include a sensor that could detect a high blood-alcohol level and prevent the car from starting.
Zaouk estimates it will take five to eight years before the first automotive alcohol monitors will be ready. The original aim is to have the devices available as an option in new cars.
In late July, Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, proposed legislation that would provide $48 million over six years to speed development of the DADSS technology.
Versions of these approaches are already used in law enforcement and corporate security systems. For example, all 50 states have laws requiring an ignition interlock system for people with a record of drunken driving. These interlocks prevent the car from running until the driver blows forcefully for several seconds into a breathalyzer to confirm that he’s sober. The driver must often repeat the test during his trip, and the vehicle will shut down if he doesn’t pass.
Zaouk wants something quicker, simpler, and less intrusive, or consumers won’t use it, he said. But getting there won’t be easy. For instance, a breathalyzer sensor must be heated up to function properly. A driver in a hurry won’t want to wait, so the device must warm up almost instantly. Also, exhaled air rises or falls, depending on whether the car interior is hot or cold, making it harder to get a reading.
The systems must be extremely accurate, or lots of sober drivers could find themselves stranded. They must withstand many years of use. In an era when cars are being connected to the Internet, the alcohol testing system must be secured against hackers who could use it to immobilize a vehicle remotely.
And since the first such systems will be optional equipment, they’ve got to be inexpensive.
Zaouk believes that careful drivers who enjoy an occasional beer or two will be first to adopt the technology.
“People don’t intentionally want to drive drunk,” he said, “but they don’t know their limit.”
He also expects lots of sales to parents of teenage drivers. Zaouk said that alcohol monitors need to be become a standard feature in all automobiles.
“Look at the statistics,” he said. “It’s just sobering. It’s 10,000 people, and not even a mention in the news. We can help solve that. We can actually make a difference.”