Car Tech: The Ultimate Backseat Driver

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Breathalizers May Come Standard

In 2007, Nissan unveiled a concept car featuring alcohol-detection technology: shifter-mounted odor and sweat sensors, a camera to monitor alertness via eye scan, alarms that told the driver to pull over and rest, and an ignition lock to disable the car.

Nissan, Toyota, and Volvo have all tested alcohol-detection technology, but none have built the feature into a commercially released car. That state of affairs could soon change, however.

The Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are exploring the feasibility and benefits of widespread use of in-vehicle technology to prevent alcohol-impaired driving. The goal is to create an unobtrusive system that quickly and accurately measures a driver's blood alcohol concentration, and prevents drunks from driving.

Two advanced technologies are currently under consideration. One of these, Tissue Spectrometry, fires an infrared light through the user's skin. The light scatters and returns to the skin's surface, where an optical touchpad collects it and software determines the person's tissue alcohol concentration.

The other technology, Distant Spectrometry, gauges concentrations of carbon dioxide in a person's breath as a measure of dilution (and hence of alcohol concentration) in the breath. Multiple sensors located in the vehicle's cabin would determine which breath sample belonged to the person in the driver's seat, and which were from passengers.

Prototypes of each design--and calibration devices for each--continue to be tested, and the team hopes to have demonstration research vehicles available by 2013. Eventually, if all vehicle manufacturers adopt the final system(s), the technology could help prevent an estimated 8000 road deaths in the United Sates annually.

OnStar Takes Care of It

OnStar offers a full menu of connectivity, diagnostic, emergency, navigation, and security services to help you avoid doing something stupid, and to cover you when bad things happen. RemoteLink can unlock your doors when you lock yourself out; Hands-Free Calling can prevent a distracted-driving crash, and Automatic Crash Response can automatically summon emergency services if you end up wrecking your joint anyway.

There's an insurance angle, too. OnStar's partnership with GMAC insurance has spawned the Low-Mileage Discount, a 35-state plan for drivers who log fewer than 15,000 miles a year, and have an active OnStar subscription and OnStar Vehicle Diagnostics. Once a driver signs up an OnStar-equipped vehicle for the program, GMAC confirms the vehicle's mileage through OnStar, and then offers a discount of up to 54 percent.

No, Really...Where's My Car?

For the directionally challenged, perpetually distracted, or oft-inebriated, forgetting where the car is parked is a common--and embarrassing--occurrence. Fortunately for them, several great apps can step in when the driver's memory goes into sieve mode.

Find My Car for iPhone 2.0 is a free app that uses GPS to pinpoint your ride's position on a map after you've parked it. You can also snap a photo and add a description of the parking spot. To find it again, the app shows you your car on a map, tells you how far away it is, and provides the shortest walking route to get to it.

Parkdroid 2.3.1, a similar app for Android, uses GPS to tag your parking location. It displays free and paid parking locations on the map, shows users' favorite parking spots, and sounds a parking meter alarm to help you thwart the meter maids.

For Better Driving, Remove the Human

Google's autonomous vehicles offer a high-tech fix for all of the stupid things people do behind the wheel. Each of these Toyota Priuses is packed with technology: four radar units mounted in the bumpers keep tabs on freeway traffic, a camera by the rearview mirror detects and monitors traffic lights, and a GPS/inertial measurement unit/wheel encoder pinpoints the vehicle locations and movements. A roof-mounted, 64-beam laser range finder performs 3D mapping and then combines the data with high-resolution maps. The result is a car with the ability to drive itself, avoid pesky pedestrians, and even respect traffic laws.

The cars in Google's fleet have logged nearly 200,000 miles; they've raced around obstacle courses, and they've delivered a blind man to Taco Bell. In short, they drive much better than most people do. Where autos are concerned, they are the ultimate in "nanny" technology--because in this case, the nanny takes over completely.

Someday, when robotic cars supplant human-driven ones, and personal transportation is perfect and accident-free, we crazy humans will have to find other ways of injuring, embarrassing, and killing ourselves. Somehow I think we'll come up with something. Maybe in Second Life.

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