Smartphones Could Save Lives by Monitoring Car Crashes

Software to the rescue

Key Takeaways

  • Apple reportedly is working on a way to let iPhones watch out for car crashes. 
  • Many apps on Apple’s App Store claim to offer automatic car crash detection using AI and location tracking.
  • A Missouri man says his Google Pixel phone saved him after detecting a car crash.
Someone using a smartphone in the back seat of a car as it travels along a busy roadway.

Peter Cade / Getty Images

Your phone might call for help after a car accident. 

According to a new report, iPhones could dial 911 automatically when they detect you are in a crash. Google's Pixel phones already can use information like your phone's location, motion sensors, and nearby sounds to monitor a possible accident. It's part of a growing push to use phones to monitor car safety. 

"The level of data that is being captured on a modern smartphone is accurate enough to take the sensor feeds and not only determine that a crash has occurred, but the details behind the impact and aftereffects," Mubbin Rabbani of Agero, a company that uses smartphones to detect car accidents, told Lifewire in an email interview.

Watching Out for You

Apple could release technology next year that would let your Apple Watch and iPhone use sensors to look out for crashes, The Wall Street Journal reports (paywall). 

The company is using 911 call data to improve the accuracy of its crash-detection system. Emergency calls associated with a suspected impact can help Apple train its software to determine if incidents are actually car crashes. 

Apps that watch for crashes need to be able to distinguish between false positives and false negatives, Rabbani said. Otherwise, emergency service workers could be constantly called to help with crashes that didn't happen. 

"Not every event detected will be a legitimate crash, hard breaking, for example," he added. 

Agero has features that start insurance claim processes automatically when crashes are detected. The data recorded from the accident can be used when investigating what happened in the accident and what potential costs will be incurred. 

Many apps on Apple's App Store claim to offer automatic car crash detection using AI and location tracking. Companies such as Cambridge Mobile Telematics offer crash detection solutions that are not specific to one phone manufacturer. 

"These solutions are often much more scalable across an insurance carrier's policyholders and are much more cost-effective than physical solutions such as ODB2 connections and GPS tags," Rabbani said. 

"Crashes will happen, but the ultimate objective is to ensure safety and make sure the customer has a seamless, positive experience after the accident."

Apple seems to be playing catch up to Google's crash monitoring system. Missouri resident Chuck Walker reported on Reddit that he recently used a feature on his Pixel that can alert emergency services when it senses that it has been involved in a car crash.

Walker said he was involved in an accident a few weeks after enabling car crash detection on his Pixel 4 XL. He was driving a Bobcat loader when it rolled off an embankment and landed upside down in a ravine. 

"I yelled for help knowing it was futile when I heard a voice coming from the one earbud that managed to stay in place," Walker wrote. "To my surprise, it was an emergency dispatcher! He told me that help was on the way, and they had already contacted my wife. Within a few minutes, I heard the welcome wailing of a parade of rescue equipment."

Smarter Cars 

The increasing popularity of connected cars also is driving crash detection systems. More than 125 million passenger vehicles with embedded connectivity are forecast to ship worldwide between 2018 and 2022. 

Auto manufacturers are building in connected safety features to satisfy consumer demand and increase regulations, Rabbani said. In Europe, carmakers are being pushed to adopt the eCall standards, allowing cars to connect to emergency services

A smartphone that's mounted on the dashboard of a card and displaying a map.

Witthaya Prasongsin / Getty Images

"Crashes will happen, but the ultimate objective is to ensure safety and make sure the customer has a seamless, positive experience after the accident," he said. 

Some carmakers already include automatic emergency response systems in their vehicles. The technology automatically will call emergency services if necessary, based on specific criteria such as blood-alcohol level or a head injury severity score (HISS), Stewart McGrenary, the director of cell phone company Freedom Mobile, told Lifewire. 

Future tech even could detect crashes before they happen. For example, researchers are using artificial intelligence to create computer programs that can monitor and identify surrounding vehicles.

"This would allow cars, themselves, more time to accelerate towards whatever target object has been set before it's too late," McGrenary said.

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