Benjamin Cohrs didn’t see the car before it hit him. The 26-year-old had only passed his test three months prior, when driving down a country road, another driver smashed into the side of him.

“I couldn’t see anything because of the open airbags,” Benjamin said.

As he struggled to assess his situation, his Bosch Telematics eCall plug had already measured the strength of the force, determined that a crash had occurred, and informed the emergency services.

A connected car drives through Milan. Photo credit: Vodafone Automotive

On a whim, Benjamin had chosen the device that plugged into the cigarette lighter on his car, but it proved invaluable in a crash.

“Everyone knows how to behave in an accident, but when you’re in shock you forget these things,” Benjamin, who is now convinced that eCall technology can save lives, said.

ECall and a wave of other new safety technologies underpinned by telecoms networks, could dramatically improve road safety.

In 2016, more than 25,000 people died in road accidents in the EU*. It is estimated that eCall, which from March this year is incorporated in all new cars sold within the EU, could save 2,500 lives per year**.

eCall is just one of the connectivity features being added to vehicles to improve safety both at the point of manufacture and through products that can be added by the owner after sale.

Pace Telematics, a Germany-based tech startup, provides drivers with a tracker that slots into the car’s on-board diagnostics port (OBD2), which normally sits above the driver’s footwell and looks like a scart lead connection.

The OBD2 port started appearing on cars around 1996, and became a requirement for petrol cars in Europe from 2001 and diesel cars from 2004.

One of the Pace tracker’s big benefits is to identify faults, which can ensure the car is running in a safe condition, highlighting issues to the driver on their smartphone before they potentially cause a breakdown or accident.

V-Auto by Vodafone has also leveraged the OBD2 port to offer a range of smart benefits. While it offers a range of impressive day-to-day features like tracking a car’s location through a smartphone app, it could also encourage drivers to take more precautions on the road.

“We grade your driving, a score from zero to 100 per cent,” said David Copeland, a Senior Manager in Vodafone Group’s Consumer Internet of Things team.

The score can help younger and inexperienced vehicle owners to continue improving their driving style.

“You get a score for each trip, and that is based on things like braking force, acceleration, speeding, erratic movements,” David explained.

V-Auto also brings eCall-like functionality to older vehicles, the sort that helped save Benjamin Cohrs’ life.

“If you have an accident, we can call to make sure you’re OK and even call the emergency services for you if needed,” said David.

Stunt driver Ben Collins road tests new V-Auto by Vodafone and gets surprised by his mum!

Experts are exploring a number of ways to build on these breakthroughs with two systems that carry road communications: ITS-G5, which works like the Wi-Fi connection in a home; and C-V2X which works on a mobile network like the one used by a smartphone.

While the former will require the rollout of specialised roadside boxes, the latter is well-placed to take advantage of existing mobile networks and can also communicate directly to other sources, meaning that it will even work when phone signal is patchy.

Such systems can enable cars to communicate information with each other, known as vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), or with infrastructure, known as vehicle to infrastructure communication (V2I).

Cyriel Diels, academic director of Coventry University’s National Transport Design Centre, has conducted research into a V2I system that alerts drivers faster about changes to the speed limit as part of the UK CITE consortium.

A connected car takes part in the UK CITE project. Photo credit: Frank Leavsley

“If you’re on the M25, you have these big signs giving you the speed limit per lane. The system can alert drivers hundreds of metres down the road about these changes through an in-vehicle display,” he said.

While UKCITE is testing 4G connected cars, Milan is one of the first cities in the world to be covered by 5G after the government provided test spectrum to Vodafone to help encourage early trials by entrepreneurs and businesses.

This has transformed Milan into an ideal test centre for the next generation of connected cars and so Vodafone Automotive – based in nearby Como - has been able to explore ideas like vehicle-to-pedestrian communication there (V2P), connecting vehicles to people (who have opted in to the trial) using the smartphone already in their pocket.

“These services are like the digital version of a fluorescent jacket,” said Marco Fenoglio, principle customer programme manager for Vodafone Automotive, explaining how the technology could alert drivers to pedestrians when visibility is low. “That has big benefits for vulnerable users.”

“Vehicle to vehicle or vehicle to infrastructure technology will be one of the key enablers for safer driving,” said Risto Vahtra, CEO of Berlin-based connected car firm High Mobility.

“Right now only few, if any, cars at all know what other cars know. They do not share information about road conditions, weather or traffic, but this will all change with the evolution of vehicle APIs [Programming Interfaces] and with the developers who will be able to utilise data from cars.”

These are small features compared to what comes next when a developed communication infrastructure could mean cars sharing data more seamlessly, offering information to all road users.

Although the technology is still in its infancy, fully autonomous vehicles could react even faster to these inputs, communicating with one another and nearby infrastructure, creating a smarter and safer environment.

Although the rollout of eCall was seen as a big step in road safety, it could pale in comparison to the benefits that come with fully-connected vehicles sharing a wealth of information to ensure that people using the road stay safer than ever before.

 

* European Commission, 2017, Over 25 000 victims of road accidents in the EU in 2016. November 19. [online] Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/EDN-20171119-1?inheritRedirect=true

** European Commission, 2018, Saving lives on our roads: ensuring 112 emergency auto-call technology works. January 10. [online] Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/news/saving-lives-our-roads-ensuring-112-emergency-auto-call-technology-works

*** KPMG, 2015, Connected and Autonomous Vehicles – The UK Economic Opportunity. [online] Available at: https://home.kpmg.com/content/dam/kpmg/pdf/2015/04/connected-and-autonomous-vehicles.pdf