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New EU law on cars could save lives but the UK is still running behind

Forget having a fridge that can re-order your milk, the first internet-connected thing that will add real value to your life could be your car. A little known EU mandate means that all new car models sold in the EU from April 2018 will have to integrate ‘eCall’ functions. This will make us safer in case of accidents, and could provide an early indication of the real value of the much-hyped Internet of Things (IoT).

What is eCall? The European Union has mandated that soon, all new cars sold in the EU must have the capability to make an automated call to the emergency services in the case of an accident. They must also have an ‘Emergency 112’ call button that can be pressed manually. The deadline is fast approaching: emergency contact centres across the EU must demonstrate their ability to handle an eCall from 1 October 2017, which can be either manual (vocal) or automatic (data via modem). Many EU countries, such as France, Portugal and the Netherlands, have taken steps to implement such systems. However, due to the nature of the UK’s public safety answering point (PSAP) approach, there has been significant confusion as to how eCall will be deployed and handled – meaning the UK is running behind.

The advantages of the eCall system are clear. When triggered, either automatically by a sensor such as the airbag deployment system, or manually, the vehicle will not only contact the emergency services, but send critical data to the emergency services. The agreed minimum data to be sent includes the GPS location of the car, its VIN (unique vehicle identification number) and the type of engine (petrol, diesel, electric etc). All of this data is sent in the first 6-10 seconds of the call, before the voice call commences. This means that the operator should already have critical information about the accident in front of them when they speak to the driver or passenger.

What this means in real-world situations is that an emergency call handler can be speaking to the driver of a crashed vehicle, assuming that the driver is conscious, only 20 seconds or so after the crash has taken place and already know exactly where the accident has occured and the vehicle involved. That’s a lot faster than if the driver has to make the emergency call themselves, or wait for someone else to make the call, and then provide the basic information on where they are and type of incident. The correct emergency response can therefore be despatched to the exact spot far faster, potentially saving lives and reducing disruption.

eCall is a great example of a real-world IoT application that combines sensors, communications and data with human interaction to provide a better service. But, in order for this to work as intended, changes must be made to the call centres handling the UK’s emergency service communications. At the simplest level these systems are today capable of handling voice calls only. To be ready for eCall they must add the ability to receive and process data sent directly from the vehicle. The risk is that individual services make decisions on how to do this in ways which may reduce their scope for further development in the future. However, decisions must be made quickly if new systems are to be integrated, tested and deployed in time for next year’s deadline.

All 112, or 999, systems must be capable of handling this basic level of functionality the end of October 2017, but within a few years enhanced applications are envisaged. The integration of video communications as well as other non-voice communications technologies potentially including text and social media messaging functions, as well as more in-depth data from a greater number of sensors in vehicles, are already planned. For example, sensors in seatbelts could let emergency operators know how many passengers are in the car, accelerometers could provide data on the force of any impact, video cameras could provide a real-time view both inside and around the vehicle. Emergency service call handlers should consider these future potentials whilst still moving quickly to comply with the immediate mandated needs.

As the Internet of Things evolves, and begins to encompass both in-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure sensor communications, it is important that all parties use open, standardised approaches that are secure but which allow integration with other systems. The eCall systems are an early test case of how IoT can be combined with tried and trusted approaches to deliver new benefits to consumers. The high-stakes nature of emergency response means that there is no option to get this wrong – eCall will be a fantastic model for how to use IoT for important and useful applications.

Adrian Brookes is director, Office of the CTO, for Avaya

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