From October 2015 new vehicles fitted with the EU eCall system will automatically transmit an alert to the nearest emergency services in the event of a serious accident.
More than 30,000 people die in road accidents within the European Union (EU) each year. At least some of these fatalities could be prevented if the time taken by the emergency services to get to serious incidents could be reduced. One way of doing this would be for accident response centres to acquire accurate basic details on the nature of an incident as soon as it occurs.
In a major pan-EU Intelligent Transport Systems initiative aimed at mitigating mortality rates resulting from critical vehicle collisions, the European Commission (EC) has adopted two proposals that will lead to common classes of road vehicles - cars and light vehicles such as vans - having the capacity to instantaneously alert emergency services if involved in a major crash.
The eCall (emergency-call) system, set to become part of all eligible vehicles going onto EU roads after 1 October 2015, is designed to automatically call Europe's single emergency number - 112 - in the event of a serious accident, and transmit a stricken vehicle's geographical location to them, even if the driver may not be conscious. The EC estimates that as it rolls out eCall could eventually help save up to 2,500 lives a year.
The scope of eCall is ambitious both in terms of its implementation and its effects. EC vice-president Siim Kallas, who holds special responsibility for transport issues, believes that eCall has the potential to reduce road deaths "in shortening dramatically the time of intervention of emergency services across the EU. When an accident happens, every minute counts".
According to Fran'ois Ortolan, regional wireless specialist at eCall testing solutions provider Anritsu, eCall will "transform" the European communications landscape: "It is the first ambitious public project aiming at improving car safety by the use of telecommunications," he says. "Its mandatory adoption will have a direct and visible impact on every European citizen. The main difference with pre-existing private initiatives is that eCall is for all, it will be free - and it won't only concern expensive models or specific countries."
When the European Parliament's Committees on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO) and Transport and Tourism (TRAN) adopted a resolution that all new cars sold after 2015 should be prefitted at manufacturing stage with eCall technology, they set a demanding deadline - even though eCall has been in the legislative pipeline for several years.
The eCall project is not without its controversies; some of these stem from exasperation about the long road the concept has travelled to market-readiness. It might also appear curious that, given eCall's advent is just 18 months away, there appears to be relatively low public awareness of this transformative initiative.
The deliberations of the regulatory bodies, industry associations, and associated consortia, probably played a part in decelerating eCall's progress, given the basic simplicity of the system compared to other information technology services from recent years. First up there's the IMCO and TRAN committees, which are drafting a report on the regulatory introduction of eCall.
The European eCall Implementation Platform (EeIP) - the coordination body bringing together all relevant stakeholders vested in the implementation of the service - aims to guide, co-ordinate and monitor its implementation across Europe, ensuring that it is timely and harmonised.
HeERO (Harmonised eCall European Pilot), meanwhile, aims to prepare pilot sites in multiple EU Member States for the deployment of the eCall system next year. Since January 2011, the nine European countries forming the HeERO consortium (Croatia, The Czech Republic, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, The Netherlands, Romania and Sweden) have carried out a three-year programme - HeERO 1 - leading to the piloting and deployment of eCall. Six additional countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Luxembourg, Spain and Turkey), joined the second phase of the project - HeERO 2 - in January 2013.
Working with these bodies are the technology providers: principally for the in-band data modems, which are based on in-vehicle system (IVS) technology (basically, a GSM modem device) licenced from Qualcomm. The project is also supported by the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (ACEA), an interest group of European car, bus, and truck manufacturers, and intelligent transport systems and Services stakeholders network ERTICO.
How eCall is structured
The term 'eCall' refers to both the generic concept underlying the technology and to an element of the process - the actual 'eCall' itself that is triggered and transmitted.
The roll-out of the eCall concept depends on the implementation of three main provisioning phases. First, vehicle and equipment manufacturers should include an in-vehicle system capable of bundling the Minimum Set of Data, and of triggering the eCall itself.
Second, mobile network operators - primarily of 2G (GSM/GPRS/EDGE) - should provision the transmission of the eCalls (voice and data) to the emergency call response centres, commonly known as Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). Lastly, EU Member States should upgrade their PSAPs in order to manage eCalls.
In brief, here's how the eCall system works. In the event of a vehicle having a collision serious enough for on-board 'sensors to deploy airbags, say, the the IVS establishes a voice connection via the 112 number, and also sends a data message - the 'Minimum Set of Data' (MSD) - to the nearest PSAP using satellite positioning and mobile telephony caller location.
The IVD starts the emergency call set-up in accordance with ETSI standards and includes the TS12 service category request message - or 'eCall Flag', as specified in other relevant ETSI standards. This 'flag' enables the the mobile network operator to'determine that an eCall has been received.
The MSD, meanwhile, conveys the exact time of incident, direction of travel and the vehicle type, for instance. Vehicle occupants should also be able to send an eCall manually by pushing a button near the dashboard.
At the PSAP an eCall's urgency is logged, and the accident location should be able to be determined on an operator's geo-locational display. The operator then tries to make voice contact with the vehicle's occupants to get further information. If there is no reply, or if the occupants are able to confirm the seriousness of the accident, emergency services are dispatched immediately.
The e-Call specifications require enabled vehicles to be equipped with a standardised in-band modem, which acts as the interface between the sensor data and the communications stage of the process.
This technology is in fact comparatively basic compared to more contemporary methodologies in that it transmits data packets over an essentially 2G voice connection (additional cellular standards could be supported on emerging chipsets).
The technical principles that eCall is based on are not conspicuously new or innovative. Comparable systems are in fact already available as an optional extra in certain models from car manufacturers such as BMW, Ford, PSA Peugeot Citro'n, and Volvo Cars selling into the European market.
These eCall-like systems are managed by third-party service providers and are first received by a private call-centre, which, if necessary, redirects the call to the nearest PSAP. The number of vehicles that have adopted this optional extra are relatively few.
Although the technology underpinning eCall is not sophisticated compared to other emerging GPS-based mobile applications, such a multi-level system demands rigorously regulated co-operation and standardisation between the parties operating it.
The mobile communications will rely on commercially-owned and operated networks. The European mobile network operators have a responsibility to be ready to implement the eCall 'flag' by 31 December 2014, as requested by the EC Recommendation. Industry body the GSM Association has long declared its support for the eCall initiative.
This is one of the reasons concerns have been raised about whether such a system can be ubiquitously operational in accordance with the agreed specification by the start of Q4/2015. All EU countries that will participate in eCall will have to meet the criteria before the mandated deadline.
The European Automobile Manufacturers Association has expressed concern that car makers will need more time to modify their manufacturing and product testing processes to build-in eCall technology. "The'automobile industry is very concerned that the proposed October 2015 entry does not respect the 36-month lead-time that the industry will need to implement the technical adaptations, as recommended in CARS 2020," ACEA secretary general Ivan Hodac announced in June 2013.
He added: "Considering the member states' requirement for working infrastructure to be in place, the time needed for legislative procedure and the need to assess the technical and legal challenges, this target date is highly ambitious."
In January 2014 specialist publication Telematics Update reported another potential concern expressed over the readiness of Galileo satellites supporting eCall. Four now in orbit are undergoing testing - more are scheduled for launch in 2015 - but a question was raised over whether there will be sufficient satellites tested and operational in time to meet eCall requirements; navigation satellite agency GSA says that there will.
Communications technology has, of course, moved on since the eCall concept was first mooted a decade ago. eCall as a generic technological concept is not really cutting-edge and since the concept first came about automotive communications, and notions of the 'connected car', have become more advanced, arguably rendering eCall's data-in-voice principle outmoded. However, its advocates might counter-claim that this is in fact an attribute because simpler features means less chance of disfunction.
The testing of eCall components is essential to ensuring that it is as reliable and robust as any other automotive safety feature. Anritsu brought its testing experience to develop a set of pre-conformance tools to test the eCall IVS devices. The company has been collaborating with industry players, such as automakers and module/chipset makers, to enable them to develop integrate, and test eCall IVSs.
"One of our key technologies is the cellular network simulator - it allows operating of telematics devices without the need for live network," explains Anritsu's Ortolan. "As live networks tend to be unstable by nature, the main advantage of a simulated network is its controlled environments: the conditions are well-known and tests are repeatable."
Uses and misuses?
ABI Research analyst Dominique Bonte has pointed out that eCall's "use as the springboard for the connected car is long gone". It could be counter-argued that eCall was not originally designed to facilitate additional services; however, the EU has mooted the eCall platforms use for provisioning additional basic services.
Some of the concomitant costs of eCall have also been scrutinised. Although national authorities are obliged to cover the expense of upgrading their PSAPs, the costs of installing additional components into each newly-manufacturered vehicle will almost certainly be added to its price.
Estimating this surcharge has become a bit of a political football punted around between various parties on either side of the pro-/anti-eCall debate. The EC itself has quoted a figure of €100 per vehicle, yet other parties, such as motorcyclist rights organisation Right to Ride, claim that the costs to automotive manufacturers will be closer to €450 per retail unit.
Another area of eCall practice that needs more clarity in the run up to its deployment is that of possible penalties for accidental or deliberate misuse. "Other alert systems that might be compared to eCall - such as car alarms, fire alarms, and emergency stop mechanisms on public transport - are surrounded by quite visible warnings about the consequences of misuse, and where liabilities for misuse fall," says Jeremy Green, principal analyst at market watcher Ovum. "So far I haven't seen any information that explains the misuse rules for eCall."
Green adds that eCall users will also need common guidance on what to do in incidents such as a pile-up: "What happens when you have a situation where lots of motorists are hitting their eCall buttons at the same time?"
In 2012 industry body the European Twowheel Retailers' Association expressed concern in this regard about eCall rolling-out to the powered two wheelers (PTWs) class - motorbikes and mopeds: "Responsibilities for each stakeholder involved in the eCall framework need to be defined in detail, so that liability issues can be answered... In some cases these issues differ from the liability framework for the automobile eCall... A full understanding among every stakeholder must be achieved before ... a'large-scale deployment of PTW eCalls."
Illustration of the eCall system in practice