Tuesday the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on the European Commission and the Member States to make sure the eCall system will be installed into every new vehicle by 2015. The absurdity of this proposition grows with each passing day and yet the EC refuses to acknowledge and accept its increasingly obvious irrelevance.
With the ubiquity of mobile phones and the crowded condition of most European highways, the likelihood of a crash causing serious injuries and going unreported is slender at best. A smartphone-based solution along the lines of what Ford and Daimler have proposed will not only provide an immediate solution available to all new car buyers, but will also enable a more robust system capable of delivering far more than the minimum set of data specified in the in-band modem-based eCall standard.
A more immediate concern for regulatory authorities will be to ensure the availability of emergency response personnel and equipment and to prepare public service access points (PSAPs) to receive the widest possible range of communications from the accident scene including phone calls, text messages, voice-over-IP communications, and video. As things stand, the majority of PSAPs are not even equipped to receive the minimum set of data via in-band modem transmission.
Instead of offering a proposition capable of immediately saving lives, the EC continues to bury its head in the sand refusing to accept the disruptive impact that mobile phones have had on emergency communications. The EC is mandating the use of in-band modem, data-over-voice, technology that the majority of European PSAPs are simply not equipped to receive and interpret. Meanwhile, private eCall solutions from PSA, BMW and Volvo are already in place in most, though not all, of the 27 EU member countries.
The EC’s insistence on an embedded modem guarantees that car makers will be compelled to provision two modems on most cars, if they choose to offer their own diagnostic and customer-relationship targeted devices. OEMs will want to deploy embedded LTE technology for product life cycle reasons, once it is available and coverage is adequate. A 2015 mandate will likely force car makers to implement existing modules for eCall, hence the prospect of a dual modem scenario. (Renault's launch of R-Link, with its EDGE modem, is a classic example of this phenomenon, providing an app store but no diagnostics or automotic crash notification.)
Smartphones as one eCall alternative; and what about privacy?
The immediate challenge ought to be to assist car makers in bringing whatever system they can to market to solve the problem – including smartphone-based solutions such as those from Ford Europe and Daimler. In other words, the EC ought to back off on the technology mandate and simply require automakers to select whatever solution is suitable to fulfill the emergency notification and minimum data set requirement.
As the eCall debate has played out over the past decade, the growing inappropriateness of the mandated technology has only become magnified by changing wireless communications technology and growing concerns regarding privacy. When the debate over eCall began, LTE was barely on the radar of automotive planners. Today, LTE is a primary concern for OEMs planning to embed modems in their cars all over the world.
The eCall mandate, which was originally seen as opening the door to enable a wider range of embedded telematics services, is now morphing into a separate standalone module destined to provide a redundant and outmoded vehicle connection. Today. no car maker seeking to provide access to emergency services via an embedded modem will want to have that provision managed by a device using in-band modem technology.
In the United States, where so-called Next Gen 911 technology is being contemplated, there is no public authority talking about a “minimum set of data.” The focus of regulators and safety advocates is clearly on enabling the most complete access to accident scene information, particularly via the mobile phones of the affected parties. The NG911 agenda is intended to ensure that PSAPs are prepared and equipped to receive all forms of data and voice communication. And there is no requirement at all for car makers to embed a device.
Sixteen years after the launch of OnStar it is clear that the emergence of the mobile phone obviates the need for an embedded device. (Just imagine for a second the responsibility and liability implicit in a failure of an eCall module to perform in a crash. The legal implications are enough to give one pause although I am sure the disclaimers have already been crafted.)
LTE deployment changes everything
Europe is already behind the telecommunications technology curve with its plodding rollout of LTE technology relative to North America and Asia. Once a global wireless leader, the EU’s wireless network strength has been leapfrogged leaving the region mired in battles over roaming charges and, now, an antiquated eCall mandate.
Rather than fostering a robust debate about how best to leverage LTE technology and smartphone connections to save lives in automobile crashes, the EC continues to stick to its eCall guns. This obstinacy continues in spite of studies conducted by NXP Semiconductors and others showing the superiority of even SMS technology to the anointed in-band modem solution.
Finally, the emergence of privacy issues has further doomed eCall, but the EC refuses to acknowledge the obvious. At some future date – with a fully rolled out eCall solution – cars will call public service access points directly. Still unclear is whether or how the car maker, the car dealer, the insurance company or the next of kin will be notified in the event of an injury or fatality. There is no provision within the eCall mandate for any of these parties to be notified of the condition of the car and its occupant(s). There isn’t even a provision for notifying next of kin.
In the end, car makers are likely to feel compelled to embed their own modems for vehicle diagnostic and customer relationship management purposes, while car dealers and insurance companies may seek to plug in their own modules. Instead of a single module vision of vehicle connectivity – eventually to be joined by a V2X add-on once standards are converged – the EU will yet again be at a disadvantage in the vehicle connectivity game – hobbling European car makers with a well-meaning mandate more than 10 years in the making that has yet to save a single life.
It may be crass to point out, but the scene of an accident is a huge economic opportunity for the insurance company, the dealer and the OEM. Accident aftercare is a multi-billion dollar opportunity and one to which embedded telematics holds the key. The sooner the EC aligns itself with the economic interest that is at stake, the sooner real understanding and progress might be achieved.
A single point of call dispatch
The only way the EC could possibly rescue the ill-conceived venture will be to institute a single PSAP strategy providing an EU-wide dispatch capability along the lines of the solution adopted by the U.K. and proposed by Russia for its own eCall system. Of course, such a system will be expensive and difficult to justify. No, clearly the EC feels it is far easier to simply push the problem onto already financially burdened car makers. (Which OEM is shutting down European production THIS week?)
But a simpler solution lies in the mobile phone. If the EC were to finally and definitively accept smartphone integration as a solution supporting eCall functionality it would resolve the conflict in a flash. With such an approach the organization will also be opening the door to a far more robust emergency response solution.
The typical smartphone today comes with a quad-core processor, compass, accelerometer, magnetometer, gyroscope and GPS. In fact, the average smartphone has the sensor equivalent of a military-grade unmanned aerial vehicle’s avionics system. Add front and back cameras, voice recognition and access to cloud services and you have a remote diagnostic and communication package capable of acting as a remote crash scene assistant.
Instead of exploring the possibilities of smartphone connectivity for enabling and facilitating emergency response, the EC continues to insist on its narrow, retrograde approach to technology: the in-band modem. Leveraging the smartphone – perhaps requiring that it be firmly fixed in the car in some fashion – will also quiet the qualms of European wireless carriers leery of adding modules to the network that will add stress but no revenue.
(The GSMA has gone so far as to make the ridiculous proposal of a “dormant SIM” to address this stress-with-no-revenue concern. No OEM is interested in installing a dormant SIM in its vehicles regardless of the benefit to the carrier.)
The single occasion where an embedded communication device might come to the rescue of a driver – ie. in the event of a crash that takes place outside of a populated area – is precisely the circumstance where the embedded module is likely to fail to find a network. And in that event, should a passing motorist see the crash, they are less likely to call, since they will assume the call has already been made by the vehicle.
A smartphone with a proper vehicle connection is the more suitable solution for car crash emergency response in the absence of an embedded solution. The EC should make explicit provision for smartphone connectivity along the lines of Ford and Daimler systems and then focus on bringing the PSAP network up to a higher and more uniform standard for receiving crash scene voice and data.
An EC mandated eCall module is destined to become a single-function device burdening European OEMs with unnecessary cost and redundant functionality with little benefit to carrier or car maker. The sooner the EC abandons this folly, the better.
If the goal is to save lives and to speed emergency response to crash scenes the swiftest solution to the problem lies in smartphone connectivity. The EC can retake the global emergency response initiative and achieve a measure of wireless communications leadership were it to adopt a smartphone solution to this problem.
Only by removing itself from the process of defining the technology to be used to solve this problem will the EC truly stimulate competitive innovation in the marketplace. The most helpful contribution the EC can make will be to develop a program for a single point of dispatch and foster technology development and adoption for the PSAPs themselves.
In an ideal world, cars should only require a single connectivity box suitable to fulfill all forms of connectivity functions thereby limiting the number and variety of supporting hardware and software systems for gathering and transmitting vehicle data in a secure manner. With the onset of LTE, OEMs will want this module to handle embedded emergency functions but continental deployment of LTE is yet in its earliest stages – all the more reason to leave the eCall function to the smartphone for the time being.