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Car and Driver: Honda, Hitachi Develop Breathalyzer That Knows It’s Being Fed Human Breath

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Honda/Hitachi breathalyzer

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Honda has announced that its research and development arm, working alongside industrial giant Hitachi, has developed a compact and portable breathalyzer that’s smarter than your average bear. Or, at least, it’s smarter than your average breathalyzer, able as it is to distinguish between human breath and “alternative gases.” Per Honda, this renders the device “tamper-proof.”
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Honda/Hitachi breathalyzer

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The breathalyzer is able to detect non-human gases—or alternative human gases, which we’ll leave right there—by way of a “saturated water vapor sensor.” Hitachi was able to shrink this sensor such that it could fit in the prototype breathalyzer, which is roughly the size of an average car’s smart key. The sensor itself incorporates a pair of electrodes that sandwich an oxide insulator; when humid human breath passes over the insulator, the moisture in it is absorbed—allowing a current to pass between the electrodes. (Water, remember, is conductive.) Of course, the device might be able to tell the difference between your breath and, say, air escaping the neck of an inflated balloon—but it can’t tell who is blowing for a reading. An intoxicated driver could still, theoretically, pass the Honda/Hitachi device to a sober bystander to fool the system.

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But let’s assume the device is used as intended by the driver. Here, Honda and Hitachi have more tricks up their sleeve. By combining the breathalyzer with, say, a car’s smart key, the device could be programmed to disallow the user to start the car. This built-in ignition interlock is slicker than the retrofitted versions required by some municipalities here in the U.S. for drivers previously convicted of a DUI or on probation for a similar offense. Furthermore, the breathalyzer is said to take a reading of the blower’s blood-alcohol content (BAC) within three seconds, meaning it’s quick enough for Japanese law surrounding such devices and for easy use in the field.

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Honda and Hitachi plan to work together to commercialize the smart key–based breathalyzer. While neat and certainly welcome, the device isn’t as high-tech as, say, the anti-drunk-driving solutions NHTSA is chasing with breathalyzers built into cars—which are capable of determining between drunk car occupants and drunk drivers.

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