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e-Call emergency service doesn't go far enough

First publishedin ITS International
2011 May June
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Federation of European Motorcyclists' Association
FEMA's general secretary Aline Delhaye

eCall misses the point and is only a tacit acknowledgement that the road safety issue has not yet been adequately addressed, according to FEMA's Aline Delhaye

According to the Federation of European Motorcyclists' Associations (FEMA), the European Commission's (EC's) ambitions for eCall implementation are premature and fail to take account of all road users' needs or of technological progress elsewhere.

Most of all, says FEMA's general secretary Aline Delhaye, eCall simply doesn't exist for motorcyclists - not yet.

"It's there on paper and in prototypes but at the moment in terms of two-wheeled road users it barely scratches the surface," she says. "Part of the reason for that are its evolutionary roots - eCall was originally a part of the high-end navigation systems, which feature GPS and a breakdown call function, used by the automotive companies as product differentiators for more well-off customers. The car companies were very reluctant to offer such services more widely but the EC has seized upon the development work they've undertaken. It's easy to see why - it's very convenient to take privately developed and in many ways fully mature eCall-type systems and make them a universal requirement. But the systems concerned are only good for cars and don't take account of motorcycles because they were never designed to.

"Just to be clear, FEMA doesn't oppose the concept of eCall. But it is way too early to be calling for mandatory fitment on all types of vehicles. There are problems associated with fit and form factors, cost and operation. Currently, 'eCall' is a matchbox-sized unit containing sensors, GPS, GPRS and 3G communications. Depending on whom you speak to, that box could cost several hundred Euros, although some of the system developers and manufacturers are talking about a cost point of around €50 once volume production is underway. In terms of relative cost, that's a lot for a motorcyclist, many of whom have to be very cost-conscious. There are also remaining questions over how eCall will be physically integrated into the motorcycle itself.

"The 'elephant in the room', however, is that eCall in its current form might not even be the right solution at all. The technology on an iPhone can support all eCall functions for a motorcyclist. An iPhone features GPS, Bluetooth - thus allowing communications to be established with the rider - and speed sensors which can detect sudden deceleration. An eCall app could cost approximately €1. Perhaps better than anything, that demonstrates that the technology is still in its infancy. A much better solution is probably being invented in someone's garage or back bedroom right now. A guiding principle of ITS is that how it works is what counts, not the system per se. Choice and affordability should be the key criteria and that's being missed in this case."

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Snoline's DR46
According to FEMA, greater involvement in making road infrastructure more intrinsically safe makes better sense than making eCall mandatory. Some systems are designed with motorcyclists in mind.Snoline's DR46, for example, is a plastic crash cusion that fits underneath steel barriers and absorbs inpact should a rider fall off. It prevents impacts with the steel barrier posts, a noted cause of fatalities and major injuries, meets the Spanish standard, currently the only one for Motorcycle-safe

Primary concerns

That last point calls into question exactly what is meant by 'road safety', she notes.

 "We at FEMA firmly believe that primary safety should be a greater concern - that involves making the machines, other road vehicles and the infrastructure more intrinsically safe, and improving and where necessary giving ongoing training. eCall as a 'safety solution' misses the point in many ways, as it concedes that it is inevitable that something will go wrong. Accepting that accidents are an inevitability is a dangerous mindset to slip into, not least because when things do go wrong the consequences tend to be far more serious for the motorcyclist.
"But coming back to cost, until the eCall initiative was launched there was very little interest from the car companies in extending the functionality or service to lower-priced vehicles. On a sub-€10,000 car such as a Toyota Yaris or Renault Twingo, the cost of the system is proportionately greater than on a higher-end vehicle. That's a statement that is even more relevant for the motorcycle and you have to ask whether it at all makes economic sense. If you were to ask bikers to make a straight choice between ABS and eCall, for instance, ABS would be the big winner. If as a bike owner you've got the ability to afford both, then great, go ahead and specify both, but better-quality helmets, boots and gloves might be the better, more sensible choice for those with a smaller amount to spend. There should be greater emphasis on letting the customer decide where he or she spends his or her safety budget."

Political creation

In many respects, Delhaye continues, eCall represents an off-the-shelf safety solution, not just an off-the-shelf technology, but that has ramifications and is in many respects the result of politics.

"It's presented as a good thing with no adverse effects but I'm not sure that that's actually the case. It's an example of a 'snowball of desire' becoming an avalanche. It looks good on paper and is convenient in that having been developed by the car companies it hasn't cost politicians or the public sector a great deal of money, relatively at least. Most of all, politicians can be seen to have addressed the safety issue - 'We gave you eCall' is in many ways a substitute for finding a solution to other, more tangible safety problems. For the biker, those might include filling potholes or clearing up diesel spills.

"eCall also gives the EC a stake in the safety game. Road safety is high on the agenda at the national and European Union [EU] levels; it's also on the UN's and World Health Organisation's radars. But in Europe, because of subsidiarity and how things work, when it comes to infrastructure the EU only has responsibility for safety competency on the Trans-European Road Network. Most other infrastructure-related safety issues are dealt with at the national or local level and there's very little space for the EC to get directly involved. Look at driver or rider training: around 80 per cent of accidents involve driver or rider error of some sort but, again, training is a national-level issue. Technology is perhaps the only area where the EU can bring its weight directly to bear. That's where vehicle safety comes in but the whole set-up is an example of how the current political power split gets in the way." As to whether eCall itself is a 'good' or a 'bad' system, there is no doubt that it will develop, says Delhaye.

Follow-on developments

FEMA's concerns notwithstanding, once eCall is deployed it is expected to precipitate major growth in route advisory and other traffic/travel advisory applications. Between now and then, the follow-on HeERO (Harmonised eCall pan-EuROpean pilot) project is to prepare, carry out and coordinate standards-compliant eCall pre-deployment pilots at the European level. Nine participating Member States (Croatia, the Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania and Sweden) together with Russia will take part in a e5 million, three-year project which started in January this year.

HeERO will: define the operational and functional requirements needed to upgrade all eCall-related service chain parts to handle eCall; implement available pan-European eCall-related European standards; and implement the necessary technical and operational infrastructural upgrades. It will also: identify possible uses of the eCall system for both public and private value-added services; produce training materials for eCall operators; and assess certification procedures for eCall-related equipment. Finally, it will: produce recommendations for future eCall pre-deployment and deployment activities in Europe; promote pilots' results and best practices among other EU Member States not involved in the HeERO pilot; and demonstrate the interoperability of an EU-wide eCall service.
"Trickle-down might be the way forward and it's worth nothing that there are private initiatives out there with broadly similar aims and ambitions.

"The problem is that the main concern of the EU is that what develops is a standard at the receiving end of the system. The whole idea of eCall is that when you patch in, the systems connects you with a voice capability in your own language so, for example, if you're a German driver and you break down in Spain, the voice at the other end will speak to you in German. That's a nice idea in principle but these things tend to be implemented with high-level political or philosophical backing and it's the consumer who ends up paying. ABS provides a previous example of this.

"These 'perfect' ideas haven't really proved efficient so far, at least not for the motorcyclist. The safety effort might be better focused on such things as having automatic inclusion of vulnerable road users in the road design process. The EU might also look to harmonise incident report forms. Lots of the specific elements, such as road condition and maintenance, gravel, diesel spills and weather, need to be brought together in a better way than they are now.

"We as the end-users pay the cost, so we want to pay for that which actually benefits us."

Companies in this article

European Commission
ec.Europa.eu
Federation of European Motorcyclists' Associations
www.fema-online.eu
Renault
www.Renault.com
Toyota
www.Toyota-Global.com
World Health Organisation
www.who.int

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