Further on up the road
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

With eCall having been legally mandated across the EU earlier this year, Philip Mason explores what needs to happen now to make the technology truly fit for purpose

On 1 April, public safety automotive solution eCall was made mandatory under European law for all new types of cars and light-goods vehicles.

For those who may not know, eCall is a digital wireless system enabling vehicles to automatically or manually contact the emergency services in the event of a road traffic collision. It does this through the collection of onboard impact sensor information, with the data communicated – over either 2G or 3G – to the ‘public safety answering point’ (PSAP), via an in-band modem.

The small amount of data generated by the vehicle is transmitted through the voice channel. The system is based on a single emergency number, for instance 999 or 112.

eCall is not a new technology – in fact, premium car-makers have been offering it since 2002. The difference between the new (public) eCall system and that provided by the manufacturers, however, is that the private system will generally be received by a call-handling centre, where additional data is added before being passed to the PSAP.

The data from the car is the same for both systems, but with mandated eCall – because the system dials 112/999 – the data will be sent over the strongest mobile network available.

Electronic brakeforce distribution
The journey towards the legal implementation of eCall has been long and occasionally complicated. It has involved a variety of stakeholders, including BAPCO (British Association of Public Safety Communications Officials), which consulted with BT in the run-up to last year’s October deadline on the implementation of the system into UK emergency call centres.

The association’s lead on this work area is vice-president Andy Rooke who, while clearly gratified that the system has now been mandated across Europe, still believes there is more work to be done, particularly on this side of the Channel.

Going into more detail about the potential benefits of eCall – as well as the process by which a call is initiated – he says: “The eCall process is activated when a sensor on the car detects that something has gone wrong. It’s not legally specified what that sensor needs to be at this point, but it’s usually the activation of an airbag, coupled with electronic brakeforce distribution, fuel cut-off and so on. Ultimately, the sensor technology used is defined by the manufacturer.”

He continues: “The information transmitted to the emergency call centre includes the car’s location, as well as a date and time stamp, which will then be bundled alongside things like the vehicle identification number (VIN), fuel type and whether it’s a manual or automatic. The communication is categorised as a TS12 [emergency] call, so it doesn’t matter which network is used – thankfully all UK MNOs have carried out the necessary upgrade process.”

This is not a test
It’s clear that eCall will put emergency services at a previously unheard of advantage when it comes to the mobilisation of resources to the scene of road traffic collisions. This not only includes being able to instantly locate the vehicle in question, but also – crucially – its exact designation. (The private version of eCall can add a variety of life-critical details in advance, without the need for input from the driver themselves).

At the same time, however, according to Rooke, there are still numerous barriers to be overcome before the UK can fully take advantage of the system in the way some countries are gearing themselves up to do on the European mainland. The reason for this, at least in the first instance, is simply due to different rates of progress and implementation when it comes to the technology itself.

“At the moment there are several areas where we need to catch up,” says Rooke. “For instance, BT isn’t currently able to make information available about the last three positions of the vehicle, or its direction of travel. They can decode the data but they can’t display it, so at the moment the emergency services can only see where the vehicle has ended up.

“The information which BT can decode, meanwhile, includes whether the call is a test or an emergency, the type of call – manual or automatic – the vehicle propulsion storage type, vehicle class, confidence in position and the direction of travel.”

He continues: “In terms of the emergency call system itself, everyone knows that we need a new one, which will essentially be what ends up as next-generation 999. The bottom line, however, is yes, we can do eCall.”

Sense of dispersion
While technology is clearly an integral part of the eCall piece, for Rooke there are also other areas that will need to develop before the system can truly come into its own – namely organisational culture, and in particular a certain ingrained attitude towards 999 itself.

“The system works incredibly well, but there are still different levels of investment and involvement. Having said that, I would say the situation is becoming much more energised,” he explains. “The UK government seems to be increasingly involved, for instance, and we now have the 999 Liaison Committee, which draws together all the stakeholders including the emergency services, the MNOs, BT and BAPCO.”

Coming back to the subject of eCall, this sense of dispersion is reflected in the fact that it is currently difficult for the different emergency services to efficiently share the data generated by an incident.

Again, this is in part due to the technology involved, but also a level of silo working – intentional or not – within emergency services organisations themselves.

Continuing his description of what happens during a call, Rooke says: “Once the minimum set of data (MSD) [as outlined above] has been received and decoded by BT, it’s displayed in front of an operator, who – if the driver is in the car and able to speak – asks what emergency service is required. The length of time it takes to send the core data via 2G/3G is usually around five seconds, but it can be up to 20. The decoded data is then placed by BT in the Enhanced Information Service for Emergency Calls (EISEC) hub, which the requested service is subsequently able to retrieve, although there are still a number of police forces who are not connected to EISEC.

“The issue is that whichever emergency service is accessing the information also requires the means to decode the VIN, something which is only possible either through typing a 17-digit string into a VIN decoder or accessing the Police National Database (PND).

“Needless to say, only the police currently have access to the PND, which means that at some stage there will need to be an extra phase of communication where they will need to be contacted to decode this part of the MSD, which is added to the incident log. That’s particularly important for the Fire and Rescue Service because the information contained within the VIN enables them to establish a detailed rescue plan specifically for at least one of the vehicles involved.”

Like trying to move an elephant
Another organisation which has been heavily involved in the discussions around the eCall legislation and implementation is the European Emergency Number Association (EENA). According to its technical director Cristina Lumbreras, the situation on the Continent is actually not dissimilar to that which is unfolding in the UK.

Giving an overview of what exactly the British need to catch up on, she says: “I would say that some of the most advanced countries in relation to eCall are in Northern and Eastern Europe. The reason for that is essentially that when the latter countries in particular entered the EU, they built their 112 systems from scratch.

“Regarding the larger or more ‘established’ countries, the process was always going to be slower because their systems have already been in place a long time. You also find that it’s more difficult in countries like Germany where the organisation of the emergency isn’t centralised, so therefore it takes a long time to get anything done. It’s like trying to move an elephant.”

“The other thing to bear in mind,” she continues, “is that these organisations are often also very conservative when it comes to rolling out unproven or new technology. You can understand that because they don’t want things to go horribly wrong, but it means that they’re always a few versions back. In most countries they are implementing eCall because they’re obliged to rather than because they want to.”

In terms of the technology itself, specifically in relation to next-generation 999 as mentioned by Rooke, the shift will essentially be from ISDN towards internet-based telephony (ie, voice over IP, or VoIP).

Speaking of the improvements that need to be made in advance of this next phase, Lumbreras says: “The most important thing is when someone’s in an emergency situation, first-responders can quickly identify where they are. The UK was a pioneer in this area with the advanced mobile location system, and it’s something which should also be implemented in all the countries across the European Union.

“VoIP is also something which all emergency services will have to roll out at some point. We’re working on next-generation 112, creating networks through which the emergency services cannot only receive calls but also share data with each other.”

The journey towards the effective use of eCall, both in the UK and elsewhere, is well under way. At the same time, there is clearly a long road ahead.

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