Apple has been hard at work updating its lineup of mobile devices and wearables. With the new iOS 14 and Apple Watch 8, the company has included a safety mechanism that automatically notifies emergency services in the case of a car crash.
However, the feature has run afoul of the law of unintended consequences, as have many other recent technological developments. Claims have surfaced that the “crash detection system” is mistakenly activating on roller coasters and in other peculiar conditions. Let’s analyze the inner workings of these systems to see what’s going on.
Can You Sense Something?
These days, smartphones serve as much more than simply portable computers or communication tools. They are highly complex sensor bundles that we always have on us. Present-day flagship models typically have cutting-edge navigation processors, satellite communication modems, and even 3D scanners.
However, almost all contemporary smartphones have an accelerometer of some sort. This feature is particularly useful for automatically switching between portrait and landscape modes based on the phone’s orientation relative to gravity.
They are also widely used as a gaming controller, or as the foundation for retro apps like the “digital beer” or “lightsaber.” These sensors have improved throughout time, with many contemporary mobile devices including not just one but three axes of acceleration-measuring accelerometers, in addition to gyroscopes and magnetometers.
Apple has chosen to put the iPhone’s sensors to better use, such as determining if the user has been in a car accident. It’s a continuation of a similar functionality found in Google’s Pixel hardware for quite some time. The accelerometers can tell if the user has experienced rapid acceleration, such as when a car collides with another and then abruptly stops.
The GPS may also record information about unexpected velocities. When the phone is aware that it is in a driving condition, the microphones may also be utilized to detect loud noises like cracking glass. Even with the window closed, the phone’s built-in barometer will pick up the pressure surge caused by the deployment of the airbags.
Nonetheless, they check to see if you’re even in a car. They say they can tell if you’re in a car, near WiFi hotspots, and linked to a car’s Bluetooth by listening to your audio.
In the event of a collision, most smartphones will sound an alert and display a notification informing the user that a collision has been detected. After a brief delay, if the user doesn’t cancel the prompt, the phone will call 911 and perhaps alert the user’s contacts that they were in an accident.
The Real World
In sum, there is a wide variety of tools at our disposal that may be used in tandem to identify potential collisions. While newer cell phones do include crash warning functions, research by the Wall Street Journal revealed that they are not without their limitations.
Both the iPhone and the Pixel did not send out any notifications after being subjected to a series of simulated collisions in a junkyard. The issue was that the phones didn’t always recognize that they were in a driving environment unless they were coupled with a car’s Bluetooth device and the GPS indicated the user was on a public road. As a result, they weren’t in a state where the accident alert system would have been activated.
Failing to identify a catastrophic accident on a mobile device is plainly problematic. However, given their relative novelty, few of us put our faith in these enhancements as vital safety mechanisms. In the worst-case scenario, they will still provide a net benefit by detecting accidents.
False positives, in which a crash is reported while none actually occurred, are another issue. When one rider’s iPhone flew over the handlebars of his motorcycle while he was traveling down the highway, the incident was captured on video.
The rider was unharmed; the phone had just come loose from its attachment to the bike. Unfortunately, this seems to have activated the phone’s crash detection mechanism, which alerted the owner’s contacts that they had been in a major accident. When the owner finally tracked down a replacement phone, he was met with voicemails from worried loved ones who feared he had been seriously hurt.
In addition, roller coasters have been hazardous. Repeated calls from these attractions are already a problem for emergency dispatchers; multiple incidences have involved the Kings Island amusement park in Ohio. Dollywood has put signs alerting visitors that the ride’s extreme accelerations may activate the emergency call feature on their Apple Watches and other smart gadgets.
The Phone That Cried “wolf!”
To believe that our gadgets have our best interests at heart is comforting. There is significant potential for smart gadgets to save lives by contacting emergency personnel when someone is disabled.
Of course, if the technology fails, all that will be for naught. Similarly to how people prefer to dismiss the child who cried wolf, they could also disregard a smartphone that screams “car crash!” on a rollercoaster.
The reality is that the newest Apple hardware is the focus of the vast majority of news articles. In contrast, Google’s Pixel phones have not received such erroneous positive verdicts. There is a high likelihood that the technology is effective and reliable. Perhaps Apple just needs to tweak it a bit more.