Volvo calls time

Volvo has become the first major car maker to develop an alcohol immobiliser for its vehicles, bringing the ‘alcolock’ a step closer to the automotive mass market.


Volvo has become the first major car maker to develop an alcohol immobiliser for its vehicles, bringing the ‘alcolock’ a step closer to the automotive mass market.

Its Alcoguard device uses wireless and fuel cell technologies to take a breath test from drivers before the engine can be started. The breath is analysed and if the blood-alcohol limit is exceeded, the engine will not start.

The car giant, which launched the device at the recent Frankfurt Motor Show, claims to be the first motor manufacturer to launch a fully- integrated system.

‘In the fuel cell, the ethanol molecules pass through a sensitive membrane and an electrical current is generated and then measured. A higher current means more alcohol on the driver’s breath,’ said David Nilsson, Alcoguard project leader.

Radio signal

Following analysis the results are transmitted by radio signal to the car’s electronic control system. Its information unit displays messages to show the driver if the test was approved or if he or she needs to exhale longer into the unit.

Advanced sensors mean external air sources, like a pump, cannot be used to fool the unit. The alcohol levels on the device are currently set for Swedish law, but these can be altered. The device uses coloured LEDs to indicate one of three possible results.

If the reading of 20mg of alcohol/100ml of blood is exceeded, a red LED will appear and the engine will not start. yellow signals 10-20mg/100ml and the car will start but the driver is advised not to drive, while green means 0-10mg/100ml and the engine will start.

The results are stored for 30 minutes after the engine has been turned off, which means the driver need to repeat the procedure after stopping for a short while.

Despite being wireless, the driver must be within 10m of the car for Alcoguard to communicate with the car’s system.

In the event of emergencies, or if the unit is lost, there is a bypass system which can be pre-set to work once, or a limited number of times, although it can later be reset by Volvo.

The system, which is stored and charged behind the car’s centre console, can also be removed if the vehicle is sold and the new owner does not want to use it.

Sweden already has a growing market for such devices. Companies operating taxi and car fleets are said to be showing interest, but Volvo want to spread the technology around the world to private motorists.

‘We will probably just launch in Scandinavia, but we are ready to expand into other countries,’ said Nilsson.

‘We are waiting for the markets to get back to us but we are prepared to launch in Europe and the US if there is interest. Sooner or later, it will catch on but it depends on public opinion,’ he added.

Accessory

Alcoguard will be made available as an accessory in the 2008 models of the Volvo S80, V70 and XC70 and in the 2009 models of Volvo’s smaller cars. The company expects to sell about 2,000 of the devices a year.

The unit costs £575 (SEK 8,000) which Nilsson admits might seem expensive to a private motorist, but he claims this is half the price of units of similar quality.

There has been much debate over the devices, with UK road safety charity GEM Motoring Assist, calling for the compulsory introduction of alcolocks in all new cars.

‘The project set out to develop a device that ensured no-one drives after excess drinking or taking drugs,’ said Nilsson.

‘We can’t get it factory-fitted (as standard) yet, even in Sweden, but this is the first step and maybe it will happen during generation two, three or four.

‘If you look at Europe and the US, over 30 per cent of accidents are alcohol-related,’ said Nilsson. ‘This unit will not solve everything, but it’s a start.’