eCall opens battle between public and private systems (Photo: iStockphoto/Neil Kendall, Illustration: Sabina Vogel)

Following a European Union decision earlier this year that all new cars must soon have an emergency calling system, a competitive battle is shaping up between private and public offerings.

The European Parliament in April approved legislation that says all new cars and light vans must have emergency call devices on board from March 31, 2018. The measure is part of a broader EU initiative to reduce accidents and injuries on its roads.

The so-called eCall in-vehicle system uses the univeral 112 emergency phone number, which can be called anywhere and provides an immediate connection to local emergency services. Cars equipped with eCall would automatically dial 112 if they are involved in a serious accident.

The problem with eCall is that it will offer a service that many car brands already have available in a slightly different form.That puts the system, which will have an EU-wide infrastructure in place by 2017, at a disadvantage vis-à-vis private emergency service providers, which have been active for many years.

Robert Bosch, for example, runs an eCall service for 1.5 million cars across 25 countries. The German automotive supplier sells the service to car companies, which provide it to their customers under their own name.

Carmakers say the existing service is three-to-four years ahead of the official system, offering better technology, more flexibility and options to connect directly with the aftermarket.The possibility to tie together emergency services, repairs, parts sales, insurance and other automotive services provides a new opportunity for the auto industry. The European aftermarket generates sales of as much as 170 billion euros a year.

Here are some of the key differences between the public and private emergency calling systems:

  1. The private scheme has been running since 2012, while the public one is set to start in 2018
  2. The private system channels calls via a call center to a rescue center nearby; in the public system the call goes directly there
  3. In the private system large data volumes are transferred from the car; the public system clearly defines the set of data
  4. The private emergency system can be deployed everywhere, even outside the EU. The public system is for the 28 EU member countries only
  5. The private technology has a flexible architecture that allows regular updates and can be individualized. The public system's technology can only be changed through new laws or new EU-wide guidelines
  6. Add-on services are an option for the private system, but the public one is only for emergency calls
  7. The private system also offers additional value for the service provider from access to the vehicle. That provides new aftermarket potential. The public system offers only emergency services.
By Christian Raum and Arjen Bongard