WASHINGTON — A technological breakthrough that could virtually eliminate the drunken driving that kills 10,000 Americans each year was announced Thursday by federal officials, who said it could begin appearing in cars in five years.

The new equipment won’t require a driver to blow into a tube, like the interlock devices some states require after drunken driving convictions. Instead, either a passive set of breath sensors or touch-sensitive contact points on a starter button or gear shift would immediately register the level of alcohol in the bloodstream.

Drivers who registered above the legal limit wouldn’t be able to start the car.

“The message today is not ‘Can we do this?’ but ‘How soon can we do this?’ ” said Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “It is a huge step forward.”

Eager to introduce an advance that would rival seat belts or air bags in saving lives, Rosekind said he would push to get the technology finalized, field tested and put into use before the five to eight years anticipated by researchers.

Though no cost-per-car estimate has been made, once the sensors go into general production it’s anticipated the cost will be equal to that of seat belts or air bags, about $150-$200 per vehicle.

Asked whether there would be a federal effort to mandate use of the devices in all new vehicles, Rosekind said he wasn’t sure that would be necessary.

“There’s not going to be a parent who isn’t going to want this in their child’s car,” he said. “There’s not going to be a business that’s not going to want this in their vehicles.”

NHTSA, safety advocates and automakers discussed whether the necessary technology was feasible for years. Researchers funded by auto manufacturers and federal safety regulators now have determined that it works.