eCall, the EU-wide in-vehicle emergency call system, is able to contact the European emergency services number (112) directly from a vehicle in the event of a serious road accident, from anywhere in Europe. All new vehicles should be equipped with the in-vehicle system from October 2015 onwards. On 5th November, the draft reports and opinions on the Commission’s two legislative proposals were presented and discussed in European Parliament (EP) committees. As expected, the feedback of the MEPs is positive overall; there is no major opposition among committee members. Indeed, the proposals follow the EP’s own initiative report adopted last June, which engaged the Commission to adopt regulatory measures. eCall is not a new idea, it has already been in the Commission’s pipeline for about a decade without really taking off. This article gives insight on the initiative and will outline points of contention that have been delaying the deployment of eCall.

First of all, let’s recall how the system functions. In case of accident the “eCall” system is activated by sensors (when the airbags are deployed) and the 112 is automatically dialled. It communicates a minimum set of data (MSD) to the relevant PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) – including time, location of the accident and vehicle description – even if the driver is unconscious or unable to make a phone call (see infographics). The PSAP will evaluate the situation and send the appropriate assistance to the accident location.

The system is currently functioning since certain car manufacturers already install it in their vehicles (only 0.7% of equipped vehicles in circulation). The difference with the Commission’s proposal is that currently the service is offered by a third-party for a fee (TPS or Third Party Service). With this, the eCall is first received by a private call-center, which, if necessary, redirects the call to the nearest PSAP.

Many actors have been pointing out the benefits of the system when considering the alarming figures of traffic accidents in the EU. In 2012, 28.000 people died and more than 1.5 million were injured in 1.1 million accidents. Early intervention of emergency services,allowed by a generalised eCall, would help save lives and alleviate severity of injuries.

The conditions are gathered.The EU wide emergency number already exists, the eCall system is already implemented by some manufacturers, policy-makers agree that such a system could contribute to cut emergency services response time, saving lives and decreasing the severity of injuries, and eCall has been in the Commission’s pipeline since 2003. But nothing has happened yet. Why are new cars still not systematically equipped?

Last June, the Commission made two proposals: one for a decision on the deployment of the interoperable EU-wide eCall, and one for a regulation concerning type-approval requirements for the deployment of the eCall in-vehicle system. The first deals with the modernisation of the emergency call infrastructure in each country in order to deploy eCall. The second sets the technical requirements for manufacturers, e.g. applicable standards, trigger, tests, etc. It is foreseen that they will both be supplemented by delegated acts.

According to the the reports and opinions drafted by rapporteurs in charge at the EP as well as position papers of automobile industry actors, some issues still need to be tackled. To summarize only the main points of discussion:

Public v. Private Platform

The Commission opted for a public based eCall solution instead of private call-centers. The rational was to ensure the continuity of the service EU wide, unlike a private service which could be limited to certain countries. This choice could overload the emergency number with a dramatic increase in calls. MEPs suggested that calls could be filtered (serious ones would get priority) but it seems difficult in practice to evaluate the gravity of an accident. Moreover, car manufacturers want to make sure that they can offer additional services (e.g. breakdown service), to which the EP responded positively as long as the public based eCall would be installed in every car. TPS would also be permitted.

Timeframe for Implementation

Some MEPs and car manufacturers raised concerns regarding implementation of the eCall package from October 2015, whereas the Commission expressed its confidence that the system will be implemented on time. In some countries, the modernisation of the infrastructure to meet the requirements for the deployment of eCall could take longer than in other countries and require further investments (e.g. modernise PSAPs to be able to receive MSD).

The Data Protection Issue

Finally, the question of data protection, a very topical issue, has also been evoked. Indeed, to ensure the location of vehicles, the cars will be equipped with a GPS and its means that there would be a possibility to track them. This causes a potential threat to consumers’ privacy but the text of the regulation states that vehicles should not be traceable and should not be subject to any constant tracking; the localization would only be permitted  through the transmission of the MSD in case of accident.

In conclusion, in spite of representing a positive advance in the deployment of telematics to improve road safety, the eCall system, as it is presented in the Commission’s proposal, still needs some adjustments. Furthermore, once it will be established for cars, the possibility of extending it to other vehicle categories, such as heavy duties and powered two-wheelers, will be considered. Therefore, the legislator should really tackle the issue of potential overloading of PSAPs because of eCalls from cars and ensure a smooth implementation.

The next step will be the adoption of the reports in first reading by the responsible committees in mid-November for an expected adoption in Plenary in February 2014 and followed by the adoption of a position by the Council of the EU.