Saab introduces 'alcokey' to combat drunk driving

Engineers at Swedish car-maker Saab are developing a lightweight "alcokey" that will allow drivers to breathalyse themselves …

Engineers at Swedish car-maker Saab are developing a lightweight "alcokey" that will allow drivers to breathalyse themselves before getting behind the wheel.

The size of a mobile phone, the alcokey is linked by radio signal to a car's anti-theft immobiliser, meaning that it can be incorporated relatively simply. If the driver fails the test, the car won't start.

The two-year project is now in its final stages and Saab introduced the device in 60 taxis and other vehicles in December for a six-month trial.

Saab claims their device is faster and easier to use than existing products and as a result is more likely to be more widely accepted by drivers.


In particular, it would offer drivers who had consumed alcohol the previous night a simple way of determining whether they were fit to drive the following morning.

Before starting the car linked to this device, the driver must switch on the alcokey and wait for about 3 seconds. The driver then breathes into the device which will immediately flash green if they pass and it will automatically release the immobiliser. The driver then has roughly one minute to start the car before a second sample is required. If the driver fails, the car will not start.

Speaking during a demonstration of the project at Saab's factory in Trollhättan, Sweden, Ingemar Söderlund Saab's project manager of advanced engineering, said the alcokey was likely to be marketed as an advisory, rather than legal system.

Söderlund said it could be used as a quality assurance measure for taxi firms, public transport companies, driving schools and hauliers and that demand for alcokeys was increasing.

"When we looked at the existing legal alcolocks/keys, used for people who have been convicted of drink driving we found they were expensive, cumbersome to use and required a lot of power."

When designing Saab's device the goal was that it be small, quick and easy to use and of an acceptable cost, Söderlund said. He added that the device would sell at around €300 but that the price could fall depending on volume.

While currently a separate device, Saab is looking at incorporating its alcokey into a key fob as an option for its 9-5 and 9-3 models.

The device is currently calibrated for the Swedish alcohol limit but can easily be programmed for countries where the allowable limit is far higher, as in Ireland.

Söderlund says the system is designed to provide a snapshot in time and he accepts the determined drink driver could find ways around it. "The alcokey can be programmed to whatever level the customer wants it to be. However, there is a big difference between legal driving and safe driving. The limit for everyone should be zero."

Saab has also tried to anticipate many of the objections to the device. "Some people said, what if there is an emergency: I've had a couple of glasses of wine but suddenly need to drive someone to hospital? Well, we have included an override system. Simply press continuously on the start button and after 20 seconds it will override the immobiliser in an emergency."

However, the override system will only work once, and the alcokey will have to be brought back to a dealer to be recalibrated. Mindful of the creative ingenuity of the slightly inebriated, the system can also detect the difference between a breath sample and air from a footpump or airpump.

It also can detect the difference between alcohol and acetone so could, in the future, have a second use as a measure of whether a diabetic is in a fit state to drive.

David Labanyi

David Labanyi

David Labanyi is the Head of Audience with The Irish Times