Self-driving vehicles will dramatically reduce or altogether eliminate motor vehicle accidents and accompanying casualties, fatalities and property damage. That is the hope of the automotive community of manufacturers, suppliers, regulators and visionaries working to make autonomously operated vehicles a reality.
NHTSA estimates that 94% of the time, accidents resulting in fatalities are caused by human error. If humans can be taken out the equation, logic suggests our roads invariably will become safer. But we’re not there yet.
Until then, unfortunately, accidents will happen. People will continue to drive tired, aggressively, impaired by drugs and alcohol, angry, distracted or just plain poorly.
With this reality, regulators and the automotive community now are working to arm connected cars with automated emergency calling technology intended to give drivers and passengers involved in a wreck a better chance of getting needed help, while providing authorities and emergency responders with the ability to more quickly and accurately locate and respond to a crash site.
Vehicles equipped with automated emergency call technology can signal authorities when a crash has occurred and transmit vital location data, essentially giving the vehicle the ability to communicate with authorities even if the driver is incapacitated, and provide more granular data regarding location, type of incident, and occupants than even an alert driver or passenger can provide.
In some cases, the system also may be able to establish a voice call between those inside the vehicle and emergency response. With Automated Crash Notification (ACN), or eCall, the vehicles’ nerve center can detect whether an airbag deployed or if there was a sudden deceleration or acceleration and send codes to responders to advise as to what might have happened in the vehicle.
Even though most of us possess and travel by car with some type of mobile communications device, the global community has begun to view in-vehicle automated emergency calling as a necessity. The European Union and Russia now mandate that all new vehicles be equipped with eCall devices and it is expected that similar requirements will be implemented in other parts of the world.
Automotive manufacturers, both in anticipation of the potential for regulation and as an attempt to seize on an opportunity to market vehicles with advanced safety features, are developing and implementing their own solutions even without the regulatory push. For example, ACN systems currently are available as an option on many new vehicles.
While the emergence of automated emergency calling can only be a good thing, there is one significant drawback to the way it’s being implemented. To date most, if not all, of the embedded systems rely on terrestrial networks for connectivity. While terrestrial coverage has improved significantly over time, it is far from ubiquitous and lacks the necessary coverage and reliability that emergency calling requires, particularly in rural areas.
Consider that in 2015, 15,276 people died in motor vehicle accidents in urban locations, while 17,050 died on rural roads, according to NHTSA. Only 19% of people in the U.S. live in areas classified as rural, yet 50% of all traffic fatalities occur in rural areas where there is a greater propensity to drive beyond the speed limit, roads tend to be more dangerous and poorly lit and emergency responders may not be nearby, making an immediate response to a crash even more vital.
The fact is gaps remain in terrestrial coverage across large swaths of the rural U.S., and these gaps are even more pervasive in many other countries. Additionally, ground-based networks are vulnerable to earthquakes, hurricanes, floods or man-made disasters and can become unavailable just when they are needed most.
For in-vehicle emergency calling to be effective, connectivity must be available everywhere, always and in all conditions. To achieve this, vehicles need to be equipped with more than just a terrestrial network option.
Today, satellite based solutions exist that can easily be integrated into existing communication platforms and antenna enclosures and provide global coverage for just dollars per car. Satellite can sit right alongside terrestrial while on-vehicle intelligence would enable the system to identify which network is the most optimal and available for the situation at hand.
As automated emergency calling becomes standardized and, in some geographies legislatively mandated, it is incumbent on auto manufacturers to integrate all available connectivity options and offer the consumer a reliable solution without connectivity gaps that can function fully as the lifeline it’s intended to be.
Greg Ewert is president-Connected Car & Intelligent Transport Systems at Globalstar and heads the company’s Automotive division (@GStarAuto) providing connectivity solutions for the next generation of connected and autonomous vehicles and intelligent transport.