Written evidence submitted by Chiltech Ltd (RSM0067)
My company, Chiltech Limited specialises in connected vehicles and intelligent transport systems.
We are submitting this paper as we believe that a system called eCall that is now fitted to all new cars and vans in the UK could significantly reduce the time of detection and response to incidents on Smart Motorways and so improve safety.
This is in response to your question on “the safety of Smart Motorways, the adequacy of safety measures in place and how safety could be improved”.
The mandatory fitment of eCall to all newly type approved cars and vans sold in the UK has applied since April 2018. So it is now fitted to millions of vehicles in use across the UK and is also becoming available as an aftermarket solution via dash-cams and apps for older vehicles and motorcycles.
eCall sends an automatic message to 999 within seconds if the vehicle airbags are deployed, including unique data about the vehicle’s location, identity and fuel type - all vital for a rapid emergency response. We see this data as a missed opportunity in Smart Motorways.
The system also allows for a such a message to be sent if an SOS button is pressed by the driver, who can then report to 999 an incident which they might not be involved in but they witnessed and merits an emergency response, such as a collision or a breakdown in a ‘live’ lane. This is another missed opportunity.
eCall and Smart Motorways
In 2019 Chiltech were awarded funding under the Small Business Research Initiative programme with Highways England (HE) as our sponsor. Chiltech led a team who specialise in UK traffic data, technology and emergency services. Our project was to research use of eCall to detect stopped vehicles and hazards on the UK’s road network including Smart Motorways.
We delivered our Phase 1 report to HE in December 2019 with a proposal for the second phase of funding to develop a proof-of-concept demonstration in 2020 of technology to filter and enhance this data feed, for example to remove ‘false alarms’ and identify automatic messages, linking to HE’s operational centres and later the CHARM system.
We recognise that England’s Smart Motorway network is a cost-effective way of increasing much needed capacity on our transport network. There has been however increased risk and hazard from vehicles stopping and live lanes with a cost in terms of loss of life and serious injuries added to the personal loss of those affected and involved.
Therefore, the primary purpose of our submission is to highlight the ongoing opportunity HE still has to improve road safety, specifically making Smart Motorways safer by using both eCall data and calls more proactively.
eCall and Smart Motorway safety
Our research project studied eCall as an additional way of detecting incidents and locating stopped vehicles on Smart Motorways, reducing response times from many minutes to seconds. This is because automatically generated messages (data) from vehicles, e.g due to airbag deployment, take only seconds to arrive in a traffic centre and could be used to automatically set signs, rather than relying on manual verification. An airbag deployed in a live lane is a significant issue as the vehicle cannot then be moved itself.
In addition, the data about a manual report could be used as a trigger along with other data sources such as radar to reduce false alarms in operational centres, and as an early warning from the driver him/herself.
The desk study and report we produced in December 2019 showed promising results from this two-thread approach, (based on recognized methods), potentially 5 lives could be saved for example in 2023 if the system had been developed as we planned last year.
However, HE chose not proceed to the proposed demonstration of real eCall use because the perception in HE was that not enough vehicles were eCall equipped, and that there were perceived security restrictions on the eCall data sent from vehicles to BT, who run the 999 service.
Our response to HE
Regarding the objection about insufficient numbers of vehicles, our ongoing monitoring shows that there are over 7,000 eCall messages generated monthly across the UK on all roads. Therefore, it is likely that useful existing data regarding stopped vehicles on Smart Motorways, or drivers in distress is not being received by HE. The voice connection for eCall is routed to the police but it can take time for the notification to pass from the police to HE, which could be reduced by the direct access to eCall data.
So we believe HE are missing operational and safety benefits of seeing eCall as an augmentation to existing systems, eg radar and also the benefits on other parts of the road network (eg the all-purpose network that has a much higher accident rate but is not so emotive).
Regarding the data security issues, HE is an integral element in the UK emergency service rescue chain and are entitled to use personal data received through the 999 system in dealing with incidents on the road network with the HE Traffic Officer Service.
We acknowledge the publicity that HE has recently embarked upon about “Go Left”. However, a further outcome of our report noted that there was little, if any understanding, by both the public or vehicle dealers of what eCall was, or how it should be used. A specific action we recommended was to develop this education programme and publicise eCall more widely, to educate all drivers as to what happens in the case of accident and when to use it if incidents are witnessed.
As part of HE’s ‘Action Plan’, education about eCall was included but so far little has been done. We do not believe that the Action Plan goes far enough in driver education, nor the proposed Highway Code updates.
As the number of ecall equipped vehicles rises with every new car or van sold, and increasingly with devices for older vehicles, the benefits of using eCall data rise also. So HE should now use the data that eCall provides. After all, traffic management was one of the functions it was designed to do.
We fully understand that eCall cannot solve the problem alone and that other infrastructure-based detection methods, such as radar and image recognition are being deployed. But eCall can provide vital augmentation to these systems.