How EU's eCall system aims to turn minutes into lives saved

Tue, 2014-12-23 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

If you’re in a serious car accident, you want help as fast as possible. Every minute that passes before help arrives equals lives lost.

That’s one of the reasons Council Lead Partner IBM is involved in an ambitious project in Europe that could help first responders get to crash sites in as little as half the time, potentially saving 2,500 lives each year.

The project,called eCall, has been in the works for well over a decade. And it’s been delayed again. But when it goes into effect in 2018, IBM is helping to ensure that it will truly make a difference for motorists.

Cars that summon help immediately
With eCall, vehicles that are involved in serious accidents immediately call for help. The eCall system dials 112 — Europe's single emergency number — and sends basic information about the crash, even if the driver is unconscious or unable to make a phone call.

At a minimum, the car gives emergency dispatchers its GPS location, its identification number, the number of passengers in the vehicle, and the direction it was heading. By getting that information immediately, first responders are able to head to the accident scene faster.

European Union studies find that this automatic reporting could make a dramatic difference in emergency response times. In urban areas, rescuers may be able to get to accident scenes 40-50% faster. In rural areas, it may make an even bigger difference. And those extra minutes could save thousands of lives.

Many pieces need to be in place
The eCall system was originally proposed well over a decade or go and has been delayed several times. Automobile manufacturers say the key challenge is that the system isn’t as simple as it sounds. Three key pieces need to be in place – and they need to be in place simultaneously if it’s to do any good.

For starters, the system, including transmission, needs to fit easily in each car. All dispatchers throughout the European Union need to be equipped to receive the automated calls for help. And the mobile network needs to be robust so that the calls can be made from anywhere.

Getting all three elements to align has been a challenge, so regulators have delayed the deadline once again. The most recent target date, October of next year, has now been pushed to March 2018. All new cars and light commercial vehicles sold in the European Union, regardless of price or model, must have the system installed by then. Regulators are still debating whether to extend it to other vehicles, including trucks and buses.

A number of manufacturers aren’t waiting for the deadline, and they’re installing similar technology in some of their vehicles now. These systems are similar to OnStar, available on General Motors vehicles in the United States, Canada and China.

But that also poses some challenges. These systems are short of full eCall and are proprietary.

IBM provides the backbone
While a variety of companies are involved in making the equipment or the mobile network, most will use IBM’s technology to transmit the data itself. And IBM says the first eCall standard is just the beginning.

In the future, eCall will be able to transmit a more extensive data set, which will include information such as the number of airbags activated, number of people without seatbelts, and possibly some personal information about the driver, such as blood type and age. It could also forward links to an external database containing medical or cargo information, helping first responders to be more prepared as they arrive.

A worthwhile investment
In addition to saving lives, eCall could also save a significant amount of money. By some forecasts, eCall will save Europe 26 billion euros annually through reduced medical costs for accident victims and lower traffic congestion, because roads can be cleared more quickly after an accident.

IBM and its partners are also working to make the system useful even for vehicles that are never involved in a crash. With the driver’s permission, it wants to build upon the eCall platform to enable reporting that could allow for preventative maintenance and roadway hazards.

They envision a button that would allow the driver to alert authorities and other drivers about everything from potholes to school children crossing the road, further improving safety. And maybe one day vehicles could communicate with each other, warning cars that are behind them that they are slowing down.

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