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Privacy, costs haunt advanced crash system acceptance

About ComCARE

  • Headquarters: Washington

  • Annual budget: About $550,000

  • Cost for board members: $25,000

  • Auto-related board members: OnStar, Ford Motor Co., Nissan, Navigation Technologie-s, ATX Technologies

    Name: David Aylward

    Title: Director, ComCARE Alliance

    Wireless device: Nokia 6165

    Laptop: Dell Inspiron

    Favorite Web site:

    Favorite IT publication: Wired

    Advice for getting tech savvy: "Surround yourself with fearless twentysomethings. Focus on what can be done; let them and others figure out how."

  • In August, a sport-utility plunged into a ravine near San Marcos, Calif. The driver and his three seriously injured passengers spent the night trapped in their crumpled vehicle before a Coast Guard helicopter rescued them.

    Safety advocates say a rescue would have been faster if the vehicle had OnStar or another crash notification/location device. But less than 1 percent of all vehicles have such devices, according to the ComCARE Alliance (). That includes more than 1.8 million OnStar systems and about 350,000 Mercedes-Benz TeleAid systems.

    Founded in 1997 to push 911 as a nationwide emergency number, ComCARE - Communications for Coordinated Assistance and Response to Emergencies - is a coalition of medical, electronics, automotive, public safety and cellular industry experts. ComCARE has been working since January to develop a cutting-edge emergency communications system that could serve as a national model.

    ComCARE's mission is based on more technology, not less. At the heart of that technology is a more sophisticated automatic crash notification device. "We have a vision of an integrated E911, EMS and traffic management communications system that will save lives, reduce the impact of serious injuries, conserve public safety resources and improve transportation services," says ComCARE Director David Aylward. "We are now at the stage where we're ready to begin deploying technologies to implement that vision."

    The nonprofit group is not looking for government intervention in rapidly deploying the technology. "Companies like OnStar and Mercedes are leading without government fiat. Regulations would tend to freeze technology," he says.

    Obstacles ahead

    But the Washington-based group is running into obstacles. Chief among them is the cost of adding more sophisticated electronic equipment to vehicles. Some estimates are as high as $600 a vehicle.

    The next-generation crash notification system could determine a victim's location, predict the severity of a crash, notify a network of emergency responders in an online registry and make sure victims get the correct medical treatment.

    A device is on the drawing boards, but has yet to win widespread acceptance because of its cost, and lack of public awareness and wide industry support.

    "The basic system cost is hundreds of dollars," says Aylward, who also runs his own business strategy and public policy consulting firm. But, he added, "most people don't know that if you call 911, you can't be found unless you know your location."

    Aylward points out that the United States has more than 120 million wireless subscribers, the most advanced medical system, increasingly smart vehicles, thousands of 911 centers and state-of-art transportation centers. But an electronically coordinated national emergency response unit is still a vision.

    "We can't automatically locate wireless 911 callers, and we can't effectively link all these components together with modern technology in order to share information with appropriate emergency responders in real time," he says. To heighten awareness of the public safety issues and their solution, ComCARE has piloted demonstrations showing how the Internet would deliver crash data to multiple response groups. ComCARE's efforts are funded by a grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation, an alliance member.

    OnStar () is the largest U.S. telematics provider. It is in 36 of 54 GM vehicles. OnStar also provides service to Lexus, Nissan, Acura and Subaru, who determine their own prices and system names.

    If an OnStar-equipped vehicle crashes and the airbag is deployed or the emergency button is activated, an OnStar adviser quickly determines whether to contact 911. Because OnStar uses a Global Positioning Satellite system, a vehicle's location can be pinpointed in under a minute, OnStar officials say.

    An advanced automatic crash notification system would go beyond that.

    "With more sophisticated (automatic crash notification), it would show this car rolled over nine times," Aylward says.

    The online data could predict the severity of injury and access computerized medical information, if victims are registered. And the system would link 911 centers with appropriate local emergency medical service crews and hospitals. Airbag activation alone tells little about how seriously someone might be injured or their location, says Aylward.

    Doing enough?

    But isn't current safety technology enough to save lives?

    "It's a technology that really works," William Ball says about OnStar. He is vice president of public policy for OnStar and works directly with ComCARE.

    "This is a relatively new capability," Ball says of OnStar, first introduced on some 1997 Cadillacs.

    "Part of it is educating the public to the benefits of the technology. It's an evolving thing. We're going through the commercial development and technological development life cycle at the same time."

    GM's Bob Lange, executive director for structured engineering and safety integration units (), doubts an emergency communications system such as the model proposed by ComCARE will catch on soon, chiefly because of the privacy issue.

    The public isn't ready to give up privacy rights if medical information goes into a central databank, he says. And car buyers won't want to pay more for the device.

    "It's certainly possible to conceptualize," Lange says. "But I don't think the medical community or alliance (ComCARE) yet have demonstrated real meaningful safety return in the data collected."

    You can reach Lillie Guyer at autonews@crain.com

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