By Candace Stuart
Small Times Senior Writer
College junior Tracy Haverty admits her role in developing a coin-size detector that hides within the dashboard and tattles on drunk drivers unnerves some of her peers.
“Of course I get teased all the time that I’ll be the downfall of college life,” she said.
But her almost yearlong effort to refine
The goal is to deter people from drinking and driving, and reduce the carnage that results from such behavior, says Edward Kolesar, a TCU engineering professor and MEMS specialist who heads the research project. A total of 15,786 people lost their lives in alcohol-related accidents in 1999, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Alcohol-related accidents accounted for almost 38 percent of all traffic fatalities that year.
Kolesar says his team needs about three more years to work out kinks in the technology before it could be used commercially. It already has the support of the auto industry and the law enforcement community, and a company that specializes in hand-held breath analyzers is tracking its progress.
While its constitutionality could be questioned, precedent suggests it would survive a legal challenge, according to companies that make similar alcohol-sensing products.
“The automakers are eager and anxious,” Kolesar said. “If you can legally show the vehicle was fine but the operator was impaired” then the company most likely will be free of liability.
Police favor such a device because it is specific and efficient: It helps them target impaired drivers based on unbiased information, not subjective observations that could be challenged in court; and it eliminates the need for checkpoints, a hit-and-miss system where officers test drivers in prescribed numbers, say every third driver.
“I’ve never talked with a law enforcer who wasn’t for it,” Kolesar said.
A YEAR OF DISCOVERIES
Kolesar enlisted Haverty last summer to help build and test a microsensor and wireless communication system that could fit within a vehicle’s dashboard. The microsensor detects any alcohol on a person’s breath and measures the concentration to determine the blood alcohol level. Any level that exceeds the legal limit triggers a wireless transmitter, which signals police. The signal could include the vehicle’s identification number, which police computers could trace to the car make and license plate number.
The project let Haverty apply her training as a mechanical engineer and gave her hands-on experience in electrical engineering. Kolesar selected Haverty based on colleagues’ recommendations. She decided to spend her summer in a lab because she considered the project worthwhile and challenging. And she discovered her classmates — while they like to rib her — are equally intrigued.
“The reason I think this is so interesting is it applies to everybody,” she said. “Most people don’t realize how little it takes to get legally drunk. I know people who now really think about it, that if they have more than one or two beers they could go to jail.”
Kolesar is working with engineers at the University of Texas at Arlington and a law professor at Texas Southern University on the project, which started in 1999. The state of Texas and the National Science Foundation are providing about $140,000 for the research.
The key sensing component is a microelectronic fuel cell that catalytically converts ethyl alcohol into water and carbon dioxide. Ethyl alcohol is the intoxicating ingredient in beer, wine and liquor. “The only thing it (the fuel cell) reacts to is ethyl alcohol,” said Kolesar, making it the perfect instrument for his purposes.
Several alcohol detectors in the market today use fuel cells. PAS Systems International, a company in Fredricksburg, Va., supplies police with fuel cell-based breath testers and passive alcohol sensors. PAS Systems International president Jarel Kelsey says he is intrigued with Kolesar’s approach because it allows remote monitoring, a feature not yet available.
Alcohol vapor that comes in contact with the fuel cell’s surface undergoes a chemical reaction that frees up electrons, which in turn creates a measurable electrical current. The voltage is proportional to the amount of alcohol.
Haverty determined the voltage an alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent (the legal limit for drinking and driving in Texas) would create. She calibrated the device so that when the sensor registered that voltage or higher, circuits would amplify the voltage signal and send a warning through a wireless transmitter to police. The device can be recalibrated to accommodate other DUI limits.
TRAINS, PLANES AND AUTOMOBILES
Kolesar proposes imbedding the microsensors behind the dashboard panel, perforating the panel with tiny holes that would let in vapor. The device is about the size of an inch-thick half dollar coin. It weighs several ounces and needs a 12-volt power source to function. The fuel cells perform double duty, as sensors and as an energy source.
Kolesar says he can get the cost per unit between $50 and $25. “Nothing in the system is that expensive,” he said.
He expects the trucking, aviation and railroad industries also will find uses for his system — “any situation when a person is operating equipment where others could be harmed,” he said.
This summer researchers will test the system on the road, driving by bakeries, printing plants, gasoline stations and even a brewery to see if any fumes trick the device. Kolesar also will expose it to aromatic and alcohol-based products such as hair spray, perfume and aftershave to test its reliability.
Efforts to trick the sensors — mints, chewing gum or rolled down windows — won’t work because the sensors are sensitive and precise. But Kolesar does fear one manmade byproduct.
“(Cigarette) smoke is the one thing that really worries me,” he said. The fine particles could coat the fuel cell surface or clog up the miniscule parts, making the system inoperable.
Kelsey said PAS Systems International would be interested in the technology once the size, cost, reliability and durability issues are resolved. While Kolesar envisions it as a tool for police and transportation industries, Kelsey sees other possibilities. Thinking as a father with one child now in adulthood and a second in diapers, he envisions a technology that alerts parents instead of the police.
“If my children knew that if they or one of their friends had been drinking, or had a drink in the car, and I’d know — now that would be a deterrent.”
Kelsey, whose company has specialized in passive alcohol sensors for the past decade, says the courts so far have favored the benefits the technology provides to the public at large over any perceived civil liberty infringements. For instance, PAS markets a flashlight that also contains alcohol sensors. Police officers can pull motorists over and use the “Sniffer” to determine a driver’s sobriety without his or her knowledge.
“Interestingly enough, up to this point the legal questions have been minor,” he said. The Sniffer has been likened to a radar gun, a tool that enhances an officer’s ability to determine traffic violations.
TESTING OTHER OPTIONS
As much as she enjoyed her year of research, Haverty said she decided she should try another enterprise this summer. “It was a tough decision to give it up,” she confessed. She still has ideas she’d like to test — for instance, placing microsensors in the car roof instead of the dashboard, where she predicts she would get an even more rapid reading.
Instead, she will be working as an intern at Lockheed Martin, an aeronautics, space and telecommunications technology company, to gain a perspective on industry. Whichever path she chooses after graduation in 2002, she’ll stand out, Kolesar said. Few students get published by the prestigious IEEE, and fewer still can boast that they helped design a potentially life-saving device. “That’s something you have forever,” he said.
COVER PICTURE: Tracy Haverty