Imagine driving down the road and suddenly you get into an accident. It's not that severe, but you still lose your bearings. Would you know who to call? But what if the accident is bad and you lose consciousness — or are trapped — and can't even get to your phone to call for help.
These are the kinds of situations that prompted the European Union to pass a law requiring all new vehicles sold there be equipped with technology called eCall. The system automatically contacts emergency services when there's a car accident, no matter how minor.
The law was proposed in April 2013, passed by the European Parliament two years later, and took effect in April 2018.
How it Works
The eCall system connects the vehicle's occupants to a human operator at the proper Public Safety Answering Point (in other words, a call center) for the vehicle's location. The center will receive a set of data to assist them, including the location of the accident, information about the vehicle (such as its VIN), the route the vehicle was traveling (i.e. northbound or southbound), and whether the system was manually or automatically activated.
ECall won't necessarily help prevent collisions, but it has the potential to save lives by getting help to injured motorists as quickly as possible. Olga Sehnalová, a Czech member of the European Parliament who was in charge of the legislation, told Forbes she expects emergency response to be cut in half in rural areas and by 40 percent in urban areas.
If the eCall system sounds familiar, it is similar to other emergency onboard telematics systems already equipped on vehicles. However, in the United States, these are optional services offered by auto manufacturers, and often require paid subscriptions.
General Motors, for instance, has offered its OnStar service since 1996, and during that timeframe, the company has collected extremely valuable data, including why it is important to have human operators.
The eCall mandate was originally proposed to work simply by connecting the cars to a computer operator, but OnStar's two decades of data helped explain why that would be a bad idea: false-positives. The data showed that in the early days of Onstar, seven out of 10 calls were false-positives. So having human operators will determine if the calls actually require an emergency dispatch or not.
The Privacy Issue
But not everyone seems to be on board. In order to provide accurate information to emergency services, vehicles with eCall must be traceable, and since eCall is now mandatory, that data can be shared whether vehicle owners like it or not. The transmission of this data, particularly location details, has caused critics to question the safety and security of the eCall system as it relates to privacy. The eCall regulations require manufacturers of eCall systems (such as automakers and tech companies) and service providers (telecom companies that transmit the data) to comply with specific privacy rules, procedures and precautions.
Despite privacy concerns, that data can be useful beyond its life-saving potential, according to TechRepublic. It will be helpful in developing new technology, such as self-driving cars, and it can be used to refine and improve telematics systems going forward.
So can drivers in the United States anticipate technology like eCall anytime soon? According to Jose Ucles, a public affairs representative from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), probably not.
"If a law were passed, it would be our job to figure out how to implement it — probably by establishing a regulation," Ucles says via email. "Historically, the regulatory development and implementation process can take years from start to finish and includes a public notice and comment period for each regulatory action."