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Navigating a path towards greater safety

First publishedin ITS International
May June 2013
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Eric Sampson
“Despite years of workshops and discussions, eCall is still not implemented. Why is Europe in this situation?” - Eric Sampson

Eric Sampson takes a look at why the European Union’s eCall system is taking rather longer to arrive than it should.

There’s an old story about the person who asked an Irishman for directions and after much thought he responded: “If you’re going there from here it would be better to start from somewhere else.”

This came to mind when I was recently reflecting on eCall and wondering when it will come - some stakeholders say the answer is never. So despite years of workshops and discussions, eCall is still not implemented. Why is Europe in this situation?

Many entities are required to make eCall happen across Europe; each with its own processes, procedures and vested interests which combine to generate reasons to act for or against eCall. So, the process is long and complicated. Let’s examine some of the many and varied reasons and speculate who are the suspects.

Member States

Despite the overwhelming vote in the European Parliament in July 2012, a number of European Union (EU) Member States are still opposed to eCall and there doesn’t seem to be one clear reason why. In fact there are at least three: protection of a Member State’s interests by actively supporting domestic commercial enterprise; the need to support an outmoded 112 system not fit for the 21st Century which the Member State does not wish to upgrade; and a feeling in some states that the number of casualties that could be saved by the introduction of eCall is not a good enough return on the required investment.

Woven through these and other scenarios is the active spreading of wildly inaccurate costings on the required upgrade and scare tactics on the potential impact of eCall on the existing Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) in each Member State. Much of this information is based on the experience gained from third-party service providers.

Mobile network operators

The GSMA (Global System for Mobile Association, the worldwide body for mobile network operators) has signed the eCall Memorandum of Understanding, committing to supporting its introduction in Europe by 2015. But nevertheless the picture is far from clear. Several network operators are refusing to engage with Member States operating as a defined pre-deployment site, or if the network operator does engage then the upgrade for eCall will confine the activation of the eCall flag to an isolated cell rather than support nationwide deployment. This reaction from the mobile networks is limiting to put it politely; it could probably also be called directly obstructive and it is hampering eCall deployment.

So is there a problem and if so what is it? The software required to upgrade networks to eCall is ready to be installed in each network when required. It tells the mobile network operator that an incoming eCall is an emergency and that it contains data. This is vital for the PSAP as it gives the eCall the correct routing and management as an emergency call.

Experience shows that the eCall upgrade will not be implemented smoothly across all Member States and current deployments indicate that the older the network the greater the likelihood of problems with the upgrade. These problems can be resolved but take time.

Inevitably, the development of eCall has not gone smoothly – for instance the selection and development of the in-band modem has taken so long it is being left behind as a technology. It is robust and works but is already showing its age as mobile networks evolve. But overall there doesn’t seem to be a barrier to deployment except an unwillingness to deploy.

Vehicle manufacturers

The debate over eCall has raged for years and clearly a number of OEMs that are vocal supporters of safety for the road user apparently only wish to support that thesis if customers pay for the privilege. This means users subscribe to the specific eCall service offered by the vehicle manufacturer (referred to as Third Party Service (TPS) eCall ).

There is nothing wrong with TPS eCall, but we need to see it in perspective as it is self-evidently not a pan-European eCall because is does not work across all Member States.
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UK Teletrac  eCall
In the UK Teletrac has an eCall facility as part of its stanadard service
Furthermore, it only works if the subscription is paid, it does not have the priority of a 112 call, it will not roam to the strongest network and it is not received in a PSAP. Instead the call is routed to a call centre. While many of these are highly professional they are not a PSAP and therefore any data or voice communication received by them is not subject to the exemptions granted to a 112 emergency call to the PSAP.

The operators are highly competent but they are not trained PSAP operators and are not trained to deal with life-threatening situations such as those that surround an eCall.

The information is then passed to the PSAP in the Member State that deals with 112 calls for the region - normally via a private arrangement where the PSAP provides a dedicated number for the TPS eCall operator to pass on the information.

As it is not a 112 call, TPS eCalls have to wait in the queue, increasing the delay in sending the correct emergency service response and losing the opportunity for the PSAP operator to speak to the vehicle occupants. This is coupled with the failure for the TPS eCall to accord any protection in the transmission of personal data, which of course is fully available in a 112 eCall.

What’s more, in most cases TPS eCall is bundled with other services when the car is purchased and often lapses after the first year. As TPS eCall is a commercial arrangement between the car owner and the service provider, if part of the chain arrangement fails then the overall TPS service will probably fail. This is in contrast to the pan-European eCall as it is based on 112 which is free at the point of use.

European Commission

The Directorates-General involved in the implementation of eCall, have varied. At the very start of eCall, DG Connect (INFSO) clearly championed eCall when no-one was very interested. A number of key people in DG Connect  have carried the burden of eCall despite strong opposition from a number of areas, in particular the vehicle manufacturers who are adamant that eCall should be a paid-for service. But recently this DG has lost focus with its middle management apparently indifferent to eCall, and key champions have moved away from its implementation.

Mobility and Transport has championed the role of the PSAP and has made good progress on the delegated act despite initially wanting to simplify the PSAP upgrade process. However there has been insufficient activity to liaise with and fully understand the needs and concerns of the Member States in the development of eCall. The result is that some states are still voicing objections to eCall that are no longer valid as the issue.

Enterprise and Industry has been dragging its feet for too long over the requirements for eCall implementation and has failed to approach the topic in an-even handed fashion. It is clearly favouring the vehicle makers and making stakeholders wait for the necessary documentation to be issued. At the outset, the vehicle manufacturers stated then that there would need to be a period of 3 years to allow for the lead-in of components integration and so on if eCall was to be implemented. Enterprise and Industry’s response to this warning seems to have been basic inactivity with a number of proposals submitted for consultation, all of which were wide of the mark. In addition there seem to have been some pretty big breaches of confidentiality where copies of proposed legislation have found their way to the industry that is opposing the introduction of eCall, thus permitting hostile lobbying based on interim thinking.

So with all of these negative comments and views why is anyone still here? The fact of the matter is that despite a number of detractors there is a significant majority who want and need eCall. The EU comprises 27 Member States and it is too easy to forget when standing in one part of the EU that the roads in Europe are not all the same. The casualty figures in some Member States represent what can only be described as carnage; it is for these countries and the users of these roads that eCall is needed.

I can’t quite see the end of the eCall saga but I do have faith that sense and a general attitude of service to humanity will prevail and believe that we will get there some day.

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