EU eCall warnings extended to drivers by Ford and Vodafone

 Automotive OEMs have been working on extensions to the safety benefits of the EU’s eCall automatic emergency alert system since well before it became mandatory for cars and light vans on 31 March 2018. The objective is to reduce the time taken for emergency services to respond to accidents and therefore increase survival rates, with evidence from some studies it can cut fatalities by up to 10% as a result of life support actions being taken earlier.

The difference can be much greater than this for accidents in remote areas where occupants may be trapped in their vehicles for much longer before being found by a passerby. Correspondingly the European Commission has set targets to reduce emergency response time by 40% in urban areas but 50% in rural areas.

Ford and Vodafone have taken this further by adding a feedback loop to eCall so that drivers themselves can be alerted when accidents occur ahead in the road. This can prompt them to take suitable avoidance action such as braking and being more vigilant, but it can also lead them to make room for emergency vehicles to reach the site more quickly and easily.

In fact, the primary objective of the €15mn project called KoMoD (Kooperative Mobilität im digitalen Testfeld Düsseldorf) is to establish emergency corridors as quickly as possible for ambulances, police vehicles or fire engines to reach the accident scene unimpeded. The system, called eCall Plus, is currently being tested and will incorporate another system Ford is developing called Emergency Vehicle Warning – to give drivers the exact position of emergency vehicles on the road.

This would represent a significant enhancement on the basic features of eCall, which although only recently being mandated in Europe have been available in the US in some form for over 20 years since 1997. That was when General Motor’s OnStar systems developed in conjunction with Hughes Electronics and Electronic Data Systems first became available in some Cadillacs, incorporating a red emergency services button. This would in the first instance alert GM’s call center which would then call the emergency services after determining the accident was sufficiently serious.

GM collaborated with emergency services for this to happen and the idea was picked up by the EU, which first proposed eCall in 2002. It was a long time in gestation partly through difficulty agreeing the protocols and technology options among member states and participating players, such as the cellular operators and vehicle OEMs It was then GM that eventually started the ball rolling in Europe by bringing OnStar “over the pond” in 2015.

Just like the original service in the US, this provided three buttons – the red for emergency, plus a blue for speaking to an advisor, say for navigation advice or in the event of a breakdown. A third privacy button deactivates the car’s GPS locator, except in cases of emergency triggered say by the vehicle’s airbag control module in the Electronic Control Units (ECUs). This is not cheap, costing well over $100 a year in some countries, being really an upgrade on the traditional roadside assistance package.

The EU decided to make its eCall available for third-party private service providers to incorporate and add value, but with the insistence there must be a free option. It can generate messages either automatically or in response to buttons pressed in the vehicle. In the first case it triggers an automated wireless call using either the 112-emergency number or a dedicated eCall channel, following activation of relevant in-vehicle sensors. In the second instance a vehicle occupant would push the button, sometimes after witnessing a nearby accident involving other vehicles.

In either case, the in-vehicle eCall device will establish an emergency call carrying both voice and data directly to the nearest emergency services, normally via the nearest 112 Public Safety Answering Point, or PSAP. The voice call then allows vehicle occupants to communicate with the eCall operator, if they are able or willing to do so. At the same time, a minimum set of data is sent to the eCall operator comprising information about the incident including time, precise location, vehicle identification, eCall status and details about a possible emergency service provider.

Apart from reducing deaths and disabilities, this helps emergency service providers resolve the location of each accident clearly in the event of receiving several calls about it, which frequently happens. They can then handle the calls and dispatch vehicles to the scene more efficiently.

Meanwhile Ford and Vodafone have anticipated how eCall, by being mandatory, can provide a platform for ongoing safety improvements beyond establishing corridors for emergency vehicles. They are exploiting in their German trial how eCall Plus could be extended further to communicate details of accidents among drivers up to a range of 500 meters. This could also be incorporated in autonomous driving systems.

Ford also anticipated benefits in urban areas from its Emergency Vehicle Warning systems that sends a signal from ambulances, fire engines and police cars directly to nearby vehicles, so that they know exact where they are and how far away. Drivers can then respond more quickly without having to waste time determining where the emergency vehicle’s siren is coming from.