The pan-European eCall is coming – eventually. But will it be too late to be the essential traffic safety service it was meant to be? And will anyone still profit from it? In the first of a two-part series, Siegfried Mortkowitz reports.
Ten years ago, the idea of an emergency in-car system that, in case of an accident requiring mechanical and/or medical assistance, would automatically and instantaneously notify the nearest emergency call center anywhere in Europe seemed like a brilliant idea.
Not only would it save lives – up to 2,500 a year, according to European Commission estimates – but it would also serve as a platform for other connectivity-related services, to the benefit of both the consumer and the then-fledgling telematics industry.
A decade on, following numerous delays, protracted discussions, political foot-dragging and serial objections from carmakers and mobile network operators (MNOs), not only is there still some doubt about the deadline for the full implementation of the pan-European eCall mandate, but its value to the telematics and auto industries is no longer as obvious.
“Ten years ago, eCall might have been the only option,” says Dominique Bonte, vice president and group director, telematics & M2M, ABI Research. “But [today] its data-over-voice technology is outdated. Its use as a springboard for the connected car is long gone.”
The latest deadline for the mandated full deployment of the pan-European eCall has been set for Oct. 1, 2015.
Beginning on that date, all new models of passenger cars and light commercial vehicles will have to be fitted with a standardized in-band modem that, in case of a crash, is capable of sending a minimum set of data (MSD) – including the vehicle’s location and identification number – via a voice connection to the nearest Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). And all 28 countries participating in the project will have to have the necessary infrastructure for handling and responding to the call.
Since the announcement of the new launch date, in June 2013, doubts have grown about the feasibility of meeting the latest deadline, however. And it is not helping that the European auto industry is split on the issue.
On one hand, the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) has asked for a 36-month lead time to implement eCall. “The automobile industry is very concerned that the proposed October 2015 entry into force does not respect the 36-month lead time that the industry will need to implement the technical adaptations, as recommended in CARS 2020,” said ACEA secretary general, Ivan Hodac, in June. “Also, considering the member states’ requirement for working infrastructure to be in place, the time needed for legislative procedure and the need to assess the technical and legal challenges, this target date is highly ambitious.”
On the other hand, the Paris-based non-profit Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA), urged that the October 2015 deadline be met. “It is absolutely a shame that this important safety legislation that we’ve been talking about for ten years is still facing obstacles,” said Laurianne Krid, FIA Region I Policy Director, in a statement. “It is essential that policymakers decide quickly so that eCall can start saving lives.”
One of those obstacles is the fear that there are not enough Galileo satellites in orbit to support the eCall system, says Marcel Visser, director business development, automotive segment, Gemalto. Up to the present, four operational satellites have been launched to test the system. Once the testing phase has been completed, more satellites will be launched to reach initial critical mass. The question is, Visser says, will there be enough time to test the eCall system with the satellites that are to be launched about the same time as eCall. The European GNSS Agency GSA has stated that there will be sufficient satellites operational by the end of 2014 to meet the mandated requirements for eCall.
The repeated delays have also frustrated many earlier supporters of the eCall legislation. “I’m losing confidence in mandates,” Bonte says.“All I’ve ever seen is delays.” According to Bonte, the deployment of pan-European eCall could be delayed at least another two years.
However, Andy Rooke, senior project manager at ERTICO and project coordinator for the Harmonised eCall European Pilot (HeERO) project sponsored by the European Union, is cautiously optimistic about the latest deadline being met. “At the moment, it’s on track,” he says. “I haven’t spoken to anyone involved with the legislation who told me, ‘Relax, it’s not going to be ready in 2015.’”
Eight of the 15 countries participating in the eCall project are already “eCall-compliant,” Rooke says. And although many MNOs are stalling on network upgrades because handling eCalls will not bring them revenue, they have no choice but to comply, Rooke adds.
Too late and too costly?
A mandate that places telematics technology into every new car would appear to be a boon to carmakers and telematics service providers, so the hostility to eCall is a little puzzling, especially considering how enthusiastic many concerned players had been initially.
Unfortunately, while eCall has been stuck in neutral or, at best, first gear, the rest of the world has changed. And Europe and the car and telematics industries are no longer what they were when the idea was first conceived.
For example, the world is still trying to recover from a protracted economic crisis that caused a severe slump in new car sales. And while the new car market appears to be recovering in Europe, the upturn is largely due to sticker price discounts of nearly 20%. In such a negative pricing environment, the €35 to €100 the eCall device will add to the sticker price of a car is not welcome. “The consumer doesn’t want to pay more for the car, and the OEMs don’t want to add to the cost,” Visser says.
What’s more, in the long wait for the eCall rollout, many OEMs – most notably, Ford, PSA Peugeot Citroën, BMW and Volvo – have been investing into their own emergency systems. Now they worry that eCall could make their own products superfluous. “Everyone is pushing ahead with their own programs and no longer waiting for eCall,” Bonte says.
In addition, current legislation demands that the pan-European eCall be the exclusive emergency response system used by drivers in Europe, effectively rendering existing proprietary systems illegal. But it is hoped that this problem will be resolved, Rooke says, and that the language in the legislation will be amended to allow OEMs to maintain their own emergency call systems, with the pan-European eCall as a backup in case the car is used in a location where the OEM proprietary solution does not work or has not been activated. “This may involve a dual-SIM in-vehicle system with a switchover as a possible solution,” Rooke says.
There are good reasons for this redundancy, according to Rooke. One is that many proprietary solutions are smartphone-connected and, therefore, may not function in a serious crash where the smartphone might be damaged, or the driver is unable to operate it. (The pan-European eCall is embedded and triggered automatically via air bag deployment or other sensors.) Another is that, eCalls will be given the highest priority by the PSAPs, which greatly decreases response times.
Does eCall fit with new business models?
The pan-European eCall project has also been affected by the unexpectedly rapid strides made in recent years in telematics technology, which is now creating new, potentially lucrative business models for carmakers.
For example, carmakers are currently investing heavily in complex business models that are built around the resale of the large amounts of data that can be extracted from the car, such as its location, its mechanical condition and even who is driving. “In order to be able to provide best in class services, OEMs want to know where their customer is and want to keep and improve the customer relation,” Visser says.
There is also a great deal of money at stake for a carmaker in keeping their customers loyal to its brand.
But eCall is coming, whether in 2015 or later, so carmakers will have to come to terms with it. The question is: Can they also profit from it?
Return next week for part two of this series.
Siegried Mortkowitz is a regular contributor to TU.
(For more on eCall and other European Union mandates, see The impact of eCall, EETS and ITP on fleet telematics, part I , The impact of eCall, EETS and ITP on fleet telematics, part II , and The impact of eCall, EETS and ITP on fleet telematics, part III .)
For all the latest telematics trends, check out Telematics for Fleet Management Europe 2014  on March 12-13 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Content and Apps for Automotive Europe 2014  on April 8-9 in Munich, Germany, Telematics Detroit 2014  on June 4-5 in Novi, Michigan, and V2X and Auto Safety USA 2014  on July 8-9 in Novi, Michigan.
For exclusive telematics business analysis and insight, check out TU’s reports: Telematics Connectivity Strategies Report 2013 , The Automotive HMI Report 2013 , Insurance Telematics Report 2013  and Fleet & Asset Management Report 2012 .