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Count down to safety. 4/4/2005
ITS related projects have, over the recent past, enjoyed a mixed fortune as the industry has struggled to find the killer application that would begin to offer some return on the many millions spent on R&D. Major programmes like the Intelligent Vehicle Initiative in the USA, the Advanced Safety Vehicle in Japan and a host of EC sponsored initiatives within the European Union have sought to identify the direction in which intelligent transport technology should be going.

In a sense that journey is still under way but with an important difference. The killer application continues to elude the industry in spite of obvious exceptions such as on-board navigation systems, electronic stability control and the like. What has begun to make a change is the involvement of the political dimension, the demands of national and regional governments for systems that offer increased levels of safety on the roads rather than simply entertainment or information for its own sake.

One example is eCall which, launched in the June of last year, has as its primary objective, the development of a telematics based system designed to automatically inform the emergency services of the location and identifying details of a vehicle involved in an accident. Earlier this year, at a meeting in Brussels a deployment action plan was agreed that is expected to result in the production of standards and specifications within 12 months and the beginning of field tests in 2006. Three years after that, in 2009, the hope is that all new vehicles will be eCall enabled.

What exactly is it that the new project is expected to deliver and what are the likely hurdles that need to be overcome? The benefits of eCall and other ADAS systems could be huge both in terms of commercial profit and lives saved. If Bosch are to be believed, their share of the ADAS market is expected to reach 1 billion by the end of the decade while figures released by various bodies around the world point to significant life-saving advantages in reaching victims more quickly than at present. DG Infso of the European Commission has estimated that the full deployment of a single system of E-112 (the emergency telephone number in Europe) throughout the EU could save 2,000 lives a year. The French Road Safety and Traffic Department (DSCR) has stated that 250 deaths a year are due to the failure to alert the emergency services quickly enough.

Supported by the Association des Constructeurs Europeens d'Automomobiles (ACEA), the European Union and Ertico ITS Europe as well as European car makers, eCall is expected to detect a collision and automatically report the matter. The message will be sent via a GSM (Global System for Mobile communications) or GPRS (General Packet Radio Services) wireless link to the local PSAP (Public Service Answering Point). Details will include the exact location of the vehicle, make and model, the registration number and the likely extent of any injuries based on the speed at impact. The PSAP will normally call the driver and check the veracity of the message and then pass the details to the emergency services. Drivers will also have the option of manually instigating the sending of the message.

But there are difficulties, including the present chaotic state of in-vehicle electronics, the apparent lack of political will at national level to sign the required MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) and the seeming reluctance by drivers to part with their cash for a system which they hope they will never use.

So far as vehicle electronics are concerned, the automobile industry faces a glum future in the design of new and upcoming models. A poor record of reliability and the consequent warranty claims in an area of vehicle production that now accounts for around 90% of innovations in new vehicles is having its affect on profitability.

Underlining the problems Bernie Robertson, former senior vice president at DaimlerChrysler said, during a speech at the October meeting of Converge 2004, that as much as 70% of all quality problems in vehicles are the result of issues with electronics. And while the issue is now being addressed by Autosa (Automotive Open System Architecture) international development partnership, there is still some way to go before the problem can be regarded as having been solved.

At the political level, mixed messages are being sent. While the concept of eCall enjoys the full support of the European Commission and at least 23 public and private organisations, all of whom have now signed the MOU, it remains true that the only government to sign is Finland. In September last year, a further ten European states signed an undertaking to join up to the MOU but have yet to do so pending the completion of internal processes. Meanwhile Finland expects to have a national service by the end of this year.

Lastly, there remains the question of whether drivers really want a system for which they will almost certainly have to pay. While PSA Peugeot Citroen are apparently experiencing few problems with their proprietary eCall system currently in use in 20,000 vehicles in France and Volvo has its On Call service, GM has been forced to substantially reduce its On Star service in Germany due to lack of interest.

Yet despite these difficulties, there is very little doubt that eCall will not survive and flourish. The stakes are too high to contemplate failure, the rewards too great. Following Nagoya, the concept of eSafety (and one assumes eCall as well) has now been taken up by Japan and the US leading to the prospect of a global (and perhaps interoperable) system.

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