The new EU eCall system for cars

By Michael Spalter
January 2016
eCall system

About the author

Michael Spalter

Michael Spalter

Michael Spalter has been a networking technician for over 30 years and has been the CEO of DrayTek in the UK since the company’s formation in 1997. He has written and lectured extensively on networking topics. If you’ve an idea for a blog or a topic you’d like explored, please get in touch with us.

Last year I wrote an article on the DrayTek blog discussing the privacy risks of letting official (government) apps live on your smart phone, about how they might taddle on you any time you're up to no good.

It may be game over for privacy-lovers though. Forget your cellphone - your new car already has the tracking built-in.

Since October 2015 all new cars sold in Europe have been fitted with a GPS tracker and mobile data module to connect to pan-European cellular networks and this has to be activated by 2018. The official EU justification for this is that a car can automatically send an SOS text message with your location to the authorities in the event of an accident.

It is claimed that this is useful in situations where you are incapacitated and there is no-one else around who can call for help. In 2015, a woman died, unable to escape her crashed car in a remote area. If eCall had been fitted, she likely would have been saved.

Automated calling would also reduce time compared to dialling and giving your location manually. The trigger for the automated SOS call is assumed to be the deployment of airbags. eCall would also allow manual calls for help with a button on your dashboard. Checking that eCall has not been disabled will become part of the MOT test.

UK transport minister, Robert Goodwill has said that the UK government is against eCall on the basis of the cost it will add to vehicles, however this is binding EU legislation.

Unreliable Statistics?

Brussells claims that eCall will save "2,500 lives a year" or, if you'd like a completely different number, "hundreds of lives a year". The origin of these numbers is unknown so you'd be forgiven for wondering if they just made it up or relied on some very unreliably extrapolated figures.

There is an often quoted phrase used by road safety campaigners that "at 30mph, 80% of injured people survive, at 40mph 80% die". That statistic is far more complicated than the catchy slogan would imply and is based on a specific context. RoSPA state that inappropriate speed is a factor in only 14% of road injuries. Few people question that for fear of damaging the message, that inappropriate speed is dangerous as it's something most people would agree with. However, eCall is not being introduced to reduce collisions, the EU say that it's being introduced to enable quicker and more accurate summoning of the emergency services. Considering the expense and potential cost to our privacy, the least we can expect is sound statistics.

Cellular coverage on Rural Roads

The RAC have pointed out that more than 4,500 miles of British roads have no mobile phone coverage - which we can assume are the remote roads which eCall might be most useful at. Almost 29,000 miles have only partial signal coverage. A further 14,554 miles of road are limited to legacy 2G coverage.

Privacy Concerns

For the past few years, new cars have already had 'black boxes' recording more and more detailed statistics on our driving, locations and speed within the car itself. Enabling remote access to that data by car manufacturer, a government or a hacker is not a gentle evolution, it's a significant jump.

Although the EU government in Brussels say that the eCall system is ostensibly about SOS calls, concern has been raised about how and when cars might be permitted to make contact with manufacturer's, what data might be uploaded and who the information might be shared with. Whatever the manufacturers might tell us they'll use our data for, once they have it, we lose control over it.

The EU admits that "It is also expected that the eCall could be exploited for additional services (e.g., advanced insurances schemes, stolen vehicles tracking etc)". The EU's Data Protection Group have raised concerns and now the eCall legislation precludes tracking of vehicles before an accident occurs, however the EU notes that a vehicle with eCall may use its cellular connectivity for other services, what they term "private" or "value added" services. Value added services are any services which your car manufacturer might provide, such as SatNav. The protection you have from eCall's privacy rules on mandatory services may no longer apply if you agree to additional T&C's from your car manufacturer (assuming you even read them, or want to use your car!).

Even if you do not use any value-added services and the eCall system doesn't send any data until triggered, the GPS tracker and SIM have to be active 'on-network' continuously which means that the operators will still have permanent access to your location details, as can any government or hacker accessing the information.

Mission Creep

Legislation and limitations can change and once all cars have eCall, you'd be subject to any erosion of the privacy rules. Governments may see eCall as a convenient way to tax vehicles entering 'congestion zones'. They might wish to detect cards driven without insurance or road tax, speeding or driven on prohibited days (some countries are trying to reduce congestion by allowing cars with odd/even licence plates to drive on different days. They might also choose it to enforce new congestion zones, or taxes according to how we drive or which roads we use - the possibilities are endless. To do any of this, the eCall system rules/legislation need only be changed and it's immediate - the data and technology is already installed.

Connected Cars

Many cars already support variations of eCall without a built-in SIM and transponder by the use of your own mobile phone and bluetooth connection. It's therefore up to you whether you enable the system and it's limited to sending an emergency text message - that system has no provision for remote polling or uploading of bulk data over 3G/4G/GPRS.

Other cars, for example those made by Tesla, are already connected with built-in 3G/4G. Their Model S continuously logs data about your location, speed, battery levels, engine condition back to them. They say that this information is used by them to help improve the product. Indeed, as a cutting edge vehicle, it's very useful for them to do just that. However, when it comes to protecting their brand or pointing the finger of blame, they can also use that data against you, as was the case with a New York Times journalist whose test drive showed far worse range than Tesla claimed. Tesla downloaded the driving data and accused the journalist of deliberately trying to sabbotage the test drive. The NYT story is quite protracted and who's right may depend on terms of reference and subjectivity.

As an aside, your author was one of the very first reservation-holders for the Tesla Model S (I paid a deposit in 2008). After years of delay, I was given a delivery date but I was unhappy that they refused to give me any information about their 3G/4G telemetry, specifically what data it was collecting and sending back to them automatically. I cancelled my order (for that and some other reasons) which made me sad. In due course, it became apparent that the answer to the question was that they collect pretty much everything (and do remote firmware upgrades to your car!).

Insurance Companies

One group quite excited about eCall or vehicle monitoring in general is the insurance industry. Insurers are already offering policy holders telematic systems which they claim will cut premiums because they can see that you're a 'safe driver'. These systems can also send a text message to parents if you speed. The boxes will also alert the insurer when there is a collision (whether you report it or suffer damage or not) and also provide the insurer with details of your speed and location, enabling them to refuse a payout on what might be an immaterial but technically valid factor (say, speeding at 31mph in a 30mph zone). Insurers say that they may also cancel insurance if their boxes report regular speeding.

Who else loves eCall ?

The introduction of cellular facilities into all new cars has been welcomed by some other companies. For example, Qualcomm "applaud the EU parliament...for saving thousands of lives". Qualcomm, coincidentally, are one of the world's largest manufacturer's of mobile communications chipsets and key suppliers of the eCall system ;-)

So is eCall evil?

No. There are elements of eCall which are good and certainly have the potential to save lives. If you believe that the EU's motivation for putting a tracker and remote reporting device into every vehicle is only to help you out more promptly in case of an accident, then that sounds like a good thing.

That the same technology can be used to spy on you, embarrass you, invalidate an insurance claim, incriminate bad guys or its purpose and application can be quickly changed by a simple legislative tweak, there's potential for all sorts of things - good and bad. Once its in, there's no going back.

You can make your own mind up; I think we're safer at least realising where the slippery slope can lead.

Note : This article is an editorial piece and does not necessarily reflect the views of DrayTek Corp, its staff or any associated person or company. The information is provided in good faith based on publicly available information however has not been independently verified. As such, no reliance, commercial or otherwise should be placed on the information which is provided for discussion or interest only. No endorsement or connection is implied of any 3rd party by inclusion of their names, images, trademarks or links. Images are used under fair use provisions.


From: Bob

If it's only making emergency calls, why does it need a SIM? The mobile standards are designed so that emergency calls always work with or without a SIM (they'll even work if the device has been IMEI blocked). Speaking of IMEI, it'll still have one of those numbers so it can still be used to track you, but the only reason I can see why there's a SIM is to sell you a subscription to a "value added service".

I think this has less to do with Big Brother and more to do with giving the auto industry a way to continuously charge their customers. The spying on citizens bit is just a side-benefit for government.

From: Paranoid

Yeah, right. The government are definitely going to limit its usage for the purpose they claim. Anyone actually believe that? They pretend it's being forced on us by that mean EU but they love it. The next time there's some terrorist attrocity, the government will use it as a cynical excuse to enable tracking of all cars. After all, a scared public will accept pretty much anything if someone tells them it might protect them. This is a slippery slope and we ought to care.

From: Jingo

I can't see anywhere in the article that road pricing is mentioned, but surely that is the most obvious additional use mode for this technology?