Life Saver Or Interfering Back-Seat Driver?

July 11, 2012
A proposal from the European Commission would see cars able to dial the emergency services in the event of a crash, despite resistance from consumers concerned about security and data protection.
By 2015, all new cars in Europe will require an emergency alarm and tracking system—that’s if proposals by the European Commission become law. Such a mandate would follow 10 years of failing to convince motorists to voluntarily adopt the system.

Many drivers see it as a means of efficiently and automatically summoning medical help following an accident. Others perceive it as a step toward having a spy in their vehicle.

The “eCall” system isn’t a new concept. In fact, the system is already fitted in a small minority (around 0.5%) of cars throughout the EU. Following an accident, eCall will calculate via GPS the location of the vehicle and then automatically connect with a local medical emergency service (see the figure). The system can also be manually activated by a person witnessing the accident.

The eCall in-vehicle emergency system senses the impact of a vehicle collision and automatically alerts local emergency medical services. It then provides an accident location reference.

Sensors (similar to those that trigger vehicle airbags) activate the eCall system upon impact. They not only sense the impact, but can also give some indication of the severity of the crash. This information is then supplied to medical centres to help determine the appropriate level of emergency reaction.

In addition, the system transmits the make and model of the vehicle involved in the accident. And if needed, it automatically opens up voice communication between the vehicle and the emergency services. Europe already has a pan-European emergency services number, 112, which can be accessed from any member country.

Studies show that using the system would get medical emergency teams to an accident in half the time it presently takes. So why has it taken 10 years and legislative pressures to put such a system in place, one that’s predicted to prevent around 2500 motorists deaths a year?

Consumer resistance comes from a “Is Big Brother watching me?” neurosis. Since it’s GPS-linked and can sense, create, and transmit data, many drivers feel it would be a simple step for eCall to monitor driving habits, such as speeding, alcohol-related incidences, and minor traffic demeanors (e.g., driving the wrong way up a one-way avenue). Of course, it could also help implement the automatic charging of road toll fees.

Despite all of that, recent surveys reveal that 80% of drivers in Europe would be happy to adopt the system. However, two European countries—the UK and France—continue to resist the idea. They have concerns about what security will be applied from a data-protection perspective, and if car manufacturers will price the added cost of fitting the system in a fair manner.

According to industry estimates, the system costs approximately €100, which many drivers consider to be reasonable. There hasn’t been any conclusive statement regarding data security as of yet, or what kind of encryption to implement in that regard. The European Commission has assured that because the eCall system “sleeps” until activated, it does not allow vehicle tracking outside emergencies. Those assurances have not alleviated consumer concerns.

Nonetheless, the system will be implemented. From a medical standpoint, it will undoubtedly save money. Over the long term, hospital costs reduce if victims are reached and treated more quickly. More importantly, of course, it that it greatly increases patient survival rates.

For the electronics industry, it promises to be good source of revenue. Today, approximately 260 million vehicles populate Europe’s roadways—a figure likely to increase as time rolls on.  That equates to a lot of impact sensing components.


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