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Is eCall calling?

28 March, 2008

The UK’s position on eCall is beginning to look increasingly isolated and there is the risk that the European Parliament will mandate implementation. Carol Debell reports on the strong momentum that is building in Europe.

eCall is a system that provides an automatic message to the emergency services following a traffic accident, including a precise location of damaged vehicles and an audio voice link with the vehicle occupants. The European Commission is looking for full deployment of eCall throughout the EU in the expectation that up to 2,500 lives could be saved every year because of accelerated intervention from emergency services.
With this potential in mind the eCall Driving Group – established in 2002 – has agreed a roadmap which should enable eCall to become a standard option on new vehicles type-approved after September 1, 2010 (Model year 2011), ready for roll out.

On the face of it, this might seem an ambitious target. Although the technology involved is relatively straightforward, the path towards adoption has not been smooth and key deadlines have slipped. The objective of having 15 Member States signing the MoU by July 2007, including Germany, France and the UK was not met. Although Germany has signed, and France is now moving towards the adoption of a proprietary in-vehicle emergency service based on a priority SMS concept, the UK remains obdurate and, as recently as November 2007, announced it would not sign the MoU.

The UK Department for Transport says that although improving road safety remains one of the department’s highest priorities and that technology has the potential to play an important role in meeting these objectives, it is important that each initiative is carefully considered on its merits.

The formal statement from the Department says: “After commissioning an independent review the Government is concerned that the benefits from eCall will not justify the cost of implementing it in the UK. We have decided, therefore, that it would not be appropriate for the UK to sign the MoU at this stage.
“We will continue to apply pressure on the Commission to address our concerns, and will review the case for signing should any new information become available.”

These concerns relate to the estimates of the number of lives likely to be saved. The UK argues because of the comparative safety of roads and the nature of accidents, the number of lives that would be saved is far fewer than European-wide studies suggest. Moreover, there are concerns about the cost of the additional emergency service ITS infrastructure and training that would be required to support eCall. With uncertainty about the cost of installing eCall in cars, and the extent to which UK drivers would be prepared to pay for the service, the current UK position is that the figures don’t stack up.

However, the UK is beginning to look increasingly isolated. Thirteen Member States have signed the MoU plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, and they will soon be joined by Luxembourg, Hungary and Slovakia. Some important milestones have now also been passed. The MSD (Minimum Data Standard) content was agreed in January 2008 and the standardisation process of the eCall Operations Requirements has started.
Field Operation Trials (FOT), originally planned for 2007, will now definitely begin in 2008.

The Netherlands are currently planning their FOT and expect to have an operational eCall system by the end of the summer. And the upgrading of Public Safety Answering Points (PSAP), which is awaiting the results of the FOTS, could start quite quickly once the first results are available.

There are still major uncertainties – a common standard and communication protocol has yet to be agreed by ETSI, the European Telecommunication Standardization Institute, and as Jan Malenstein of The Netherlands Police Agency says, this makes life difficult for those Member States who are pushing for early adoption. However, new proposals are expected by mid 2008.

And the business model, the commercial relationship between industry players and the public sector, is not yet fully developed although organizations like ADAC, the German automobile association, which has completed a successful cross-border trial of eCall, sees a potential role for private sector players to become involved.
Despite these hold-ups, in 2008 three Member States are planning studies and ten Member States are either running or planning trials, including large-scale trials. If anyone was under the impression that eCall was going away, then they should think again.

A 2010 target is beginning to look as if it might stick. It currently looks as if The Netherlands will be the first country in Europe to have an operational eCall system, with Finland and Sweden in hot pursuit. Jan Malenstein, Chief Inspector with The Netherlands National Police Agency points out that The Netherlands is updating its call centre (it only has one) to accept eCalls.

This upgrading process will make it possible for the centre to handle eCalls and provide location information based on GPS. The work at the centre is expected to be complete by mid March, and the focus is now on getting a Field Operation Trial (FOT) up and running.

BAPCO President Elect, Hampshire DCC Ian Readhead will review the UK/Europe and North America position in the next issue of BAPCO.

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