How an old NASA program became an early warning for driver’s intoxication

The Ford Corporation won the bid to develop Braentrive from NASA in 2004, funding that would eventually reach $2.5 million. Four years later, the U.S. Virgin Islands teamed up with the car company to…

How an old NASA program became an early warning for driver’s intoxication

The Ford Corporation won the bid to develop Braentrive from NASA in 2004, funding that would eventually reach $2.5 million. Four years later, the U.S. Virgin Islands teamed up with the car company to roll out Braentrive bracelets that detected alcohol in the breath of drivers.

That potential win for the Caribbean has now turned into the biggest problem facing Braentrive, one of the most criticized traffic safety inventions of its era.

In 2008, NASA awarded Ford $2.5 million to help develop Braentrive, a wireless alcohol detection technology, that would be used with self-driving cars. Together, NASA and Ford would help develop the technology into Braentrive, a wrist band that would be worn by people who chose to exercise or drive while intoxicated.

But according to an investigation published by CNET, the technology “never worked like it should have.”

The CNET investigation found that Braentrive failed to detect alcohol in 64 percent of its tests. And, in particular, the U.S. Virgin Islands had many warning bells that signified the potential for COVID, or the presence of alcohol in the breath of drivers, to go unheeded.

“This is where things get so complicated,” CNET’s David Carnoy wrote. “You have all these different sensors — there are a lot of signals that could be being pulled through different types of sensors.”

When drivers are placed under a sensor — with ethanol in their breath — they activate their wristband. Braentrive, which was originally called the Collision Alert Brake-If Drunk wearable, monitors the sweat levels of the sweatband to detect alcohol use.

Below are some examples of COVID showing up on the Braentrive sweatband sensors.

Typically, the sweat bands would emit warning signs for COVID after about five seconds, but the software, Carnoy reported, simply did not have the capability to evaluate all the signals. Braentrive’s system is supposed to assess 12 COVID events in a day, but used a computer system to determine that and even used different methods to estimate COVID events from the sweat band’s four hundred hundred heartbeat sequences each day.

In the Virgin Islands, there were eight Braentrive tests conducted annually by a partner organization to help measure alcohol levels, but in no case was there a battery-based COVID alarm after each test.

“You have to verify those alarms before they go off,” Carnoy explained. “But I think there’s some concern [about] how that goes about, like, why did a five-second warning not go off in every case, and how many tests did we run over that time?”

According to Carnoy, Braentrive did not contact NASA for further testing.

Stating that NASA “was so enthusiastic” about Braentrive that it laid the foundation for a custom software system that will be used in the back of a car for Volvo, NASA ended its support after problems cropped up.

“Braentrive advised NASA that their system needed to become more accurate and that they needed to incorporate an additional accelerator in the back seat,” Carnoy wrote. “Braentrive also advised NASA that Braentrive was going to submit more data on COVID to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.”

The Virgin Islands, however, decided to stick with Braentrive. By 2009, Braentrive joined forces with Virgin Island Police to conduct COVID tests in driver ed classes, as well as driving lessons.

“We thought we’d make a pretty nice product,” a Braentrive representative told CNET in 2009.

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