/ Motoring

No need to call an ambulance, your car will do it for you

The EU is planning to introduce a requirement that says all new cars must be fitted with a system that automatically calls the emergency services if you have a crash. But what are the potential problems with such a system?

Last September, the EU called on member states to convince mobile networks to let cars call the emergency services automatically.

Supporting data suggests that a reduction of response time by 50-60% is possible, which could save the lives of many car crash victims.

My initial thoughts are that this sounds like a sensible idea. But the sceptic in me has visions of malfunctioning systems as six fire engines, two ambulances and a van full of armed riot police turn up when someone bumps you in the supermarket car park!

A new level of ‘hands-free’ technology

I know that a couple of manufacturers already offer this feature, with both BMW and Peugeot receiving extra points in the Euro NCAP ‘safety assist’ rating for their systems.

In the event of an accident, the ‘BMW Assist Advanced eCall’ sends a message to a BMW call centre giving the ‘urgency’ severity risk prediction (based on data collected by the system as the accident occurred). It forms part of ‘BMW Assist’, a safety and convenience option available on all BMWs that also incorporates roadside assistance services.

The Peugeot ‘Connect SOS’ system does a similar job – sending a message to the emergency call centre indicating where the accident occurred and the likely severity.

Both systems establish a voice connection between the car and the call centre so, if the passengers are able to, they can communicate what has happened, the number of people on board, the severity of injuries and so on.

The two systems I describe above communicate to manufacturer-run (and funded) call centres. However, if a Europe-wide mandatory system was implemented; it would presumably operate through a single, dedicated call centre, to speed up responses by cutting out the middle man.

Potential pitfalls

There is a definite propensity among the authorities (certainly in the UK) to cut back on services. For example, I read only a few weeks ago about the rationalisation of emergency service call centres in the area where I live. Whereas manufacturers currently charge a premium for this service and fund call centres themselves – a Europe wide enforcement would likely require support from existing (and already strained) emergency service call centres.

And if all carmakers are required to provide these systems, there will no doubt be pressure to reduce the cost of them. I worry that this could this lead to designs taking the ‘cheap and cheerful’ approach, leading to systems that aren’t up to the job. Could we start seeing regular calls when they’re not needed, clogging up our emergency services?


When the 3-year warranty on my BMW expired, BMW wrote to me asking me to pay £10 per month for this service. Obviously I declined, given that this is more than I pay for a mobile phone service that I actually use every month. Had it been £10 per year, I might have considered it good value for money. Now whenever I start the car, I get an annoying message telling me that the SOS service is not available.

That sounds extremely frustrating. When you buy a premium car like a BMW, you don’t expect to be hounded by messages if you don’t pay up for a service you don’t want.

I happen to think that if you have a premium car like a BMW and it comes with this technology, why wouldn’t you want it? For £10 per month I know that if my wife and six month old son (who predominantly have the car) are involved in an accident and the airbags go off, the call centre at BMW automatically calls the car. If there’s no response (possibly due to the severity of the incident) then BMW can pin point the car and get emergency services to them. That’s much quicker than a driver who should she be able to talk, may be dazed and not know her exact location. For a husband/parent, the cost of what is probably well below your hourly salary rate is nothing on a monthly basis for the safety of your family. I’d even be happy to pay it if it was just me.

Argus says:
12 July 2012

And they are complaining about so many nuisance 999 calls.

Another great EU “directive” aimed at forcing us to buy new cars with new technology we don’t need. In every accident I have been involved in, the emergency services have NEVER been required.

What a massive waste of time and resources

Thats good idea, the EU can fund the additional Emergency Service costs in each of the countries concerned. We will then have a lot more jobs, a large increase in Emergency callouts and a total lack of Emergency services for normal calls.

Mind you there won’t be any difference there will there?

Another EU imposition – as I know the “government” will impose a charge on ALL motorists for the “service”

Cathode Follower says:
13 July 2012

Why are British people so prejudiced against anything that comes from the EU. The present government is hardly an example of democracy in action – they don’t really have a proper mandate, just a fudged post-election surprise from the posh boys. So here comes a good idea that might save lives from Europe and instead of having an open and intelligent discussion we get prejudice. After all the recent evidence from the Leveson enquiry why do Brits still believe the popular press and show so much hostility to our European neighbours?

I’m not automatically opposed to everything that comes from the EU. For example, the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs was a sensible energy saving measure.

The problem here is that automatic calling of emergency services could cause a lot of false alarms. Look at the discussion of faulty warning lights risking MOT failures in cars and you will see that many manufacturers produce electronic components with poor reliability. In addition, calls could be made when the passengers are unharmed by an accident. I have nothing against trials, but until the system has been proven to be reliable it could fairly be regarded as a gimmick.

This sounds like a good idea to me. It would also be useful if the car would phone a friend, ask the audience if there is a doctor present, and ask the insurers to go fifty-fifty on the claim as both drivers were on their mobiles at the time.

Seriously . . . this could get the injured treated quicker and save some lives, particularly by transmitting extremely accurate location data to the emergency services.

In these days of air ambulance responses to emergencies it would be a good idea if a vivid orange external airbag [with beacon] deployed on the roof of a vehicle where the passenger air bags have deployed following impact.

Phil says:
13 July 2012

I think it’s a good idea I just can’t see it saving many lives. The number of accidents where nobody is around or able to call for help in these overcrowded isles must be very small. The place where they are most likely to happen would be remote areas where the mobile phone coverage is poor or even nonexistent so it might not work even then.

My understanding is that the BMW Assist package includes locating the vehicle should it be stolen. If so £120 pa is not that expensive when compared to other tracker systems.