Holding out for a HeERO - how eCall systems will save lives

October 21, 2015 // By EDN
Sven Etzold, Creative Marketing Strategist, u-blox
It is every car driver’s nightmare scenario to be involved in an accident and unable to call for assistance. Injury or shock means that in many car accidents, even relatively minor ones, those involved are often reliant on a witness to make an emergency call, and in very rural areas, it might be hours before help arrives. However, a recent decision by the European Parliament to mandate an automatic-emergency-call alert system in all new cars and light vans sold within the EU from 31st March 2018 – eCall – means that ambulance crews and rescue services will reach the scene faster, potentially saving lives and reducing the severity of injuries.

While the ruling will bring rapid emergency assistance to a car near you very soon, the project to bring it to reality has been anything but speedy. eCall’s concept was mooted as early as 1999 at the launch of the Galileo project. A stalled plan for a European calling system got the impetus it needed with the instigation of the first HeERO project in 2011.  This part European funded project provided a technical evaluation of eCall, which moved to a process driven investigation that involved the entire rescue chain in HeERO 2, which ran between 2013 and 2015.

Actually, a long gestation was to be expected; e-Call is a complicated project from a technical and practical standpoint. There were two deliverables that were key to the project’s ultimate success: interoperability /cross border continuity i.e. the possibility for any vehicle from any European country travelling across Europe to use the Call service, and also harmonisation i.e. the eCall service still respects different national implementations.

Proprietary eCall systems have already been implemented by some premium carmakers, such as BMW, PSA and Volvo, but today, just a fraction of cars across Europe boast the system. According to the European Commission, the installation of the eCall system will add approximately €100 to the cost of a new car. However, with some 250 million cars in use across the continent, it is expected that roll-out of the system in new cars will fuel a competitive market in aftermarket systems.

From a technical standpoint, eCall relies on an array of technologies. In each vehicle, an embedded eCall subsystem monitors in-vehicle sensors. When an accident occurs, eCall is activated either manually by pushing a button, or automatically via activation of in-vehicle sensors, such as airbag deployment. The system automatically transmits location data obtained via a GNSS (Global Navigation Satellite System) receiver and initiates a full-duplex voice/data call via a dedicated modem. Whilst the system currently operates using the GPS (US) satellite positioning system, the European Galileo system will come online in the next few years and will also be an option. On the cellular side, current solutions are largely based on 2G/GSM technologies, but 4G/LTE will become dominant.

Given the evolution of cellular and satellite technology options, car makers, automotive OEMs and designers of IVS terminals will need a flexible chip/module solution that can be easily upgraded whatever the required cellular or positioning technology demanded by eCall. One supplier that is well positioned for this market is u-blox, whose solutions aren’t dependent on any particular satellite positioning or cellular system. u-blox’s modules use a nested design with a common PCB for AEC-Q100-qualified automotive-grade modems based on GSM, UMTS or LTE. This ensures that when an upgrade is required, a board redesign isn’t necessary. In addition, the company’s solutions support different satellite positioning system including GPS, Galileo and the Russian GLONASS system, among others.

Another plus point for using u-blox is its 3D automotive dead reckoning technology, which could significantly enhance GNSS positioning in eCall systems. Particularly helpful for when satellite signals are partially or completely blocked, 3D automotive dead reckoning